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Indigenous Peoples
United States

White earth
Why Winona LaDuke wants her land back.

Winona LaDuke: 'Can your society continue to live without ours?' Over the past 500 years the indigenous experience has been one of conflict between the indigenous and the industrial world view. This conflict has manifested itself as holocaust. Indigenous people understand clearly that this society, which has caused the extinction of more species in the past 150 years than the total species extinction from the Ice Age to the mid-nineteenth century, is the same society that has caused the extinction of about 2,000 different indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere alone. Bartholomew de las Casas and other contemporaries of Columbus estimated that 50 million indigenous people perished in a 60-year period. In terms of millions of people, this was probably the largest holocaust in world history.

We understand intimately the relationship between extinction of species and extinction of peoples, because we experience both. And the extinction continues. Just last year the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has legal responsibility for people like myself, declared 19 different indigenous nations in North America extinct. The rate of extinction in the Amazon rainforest has been one indigenous people per year since 1900.

Now it is not appropriate for me to say that my holocaust was worse than someone else’s holocaust. But it is absolutely correct for me to demand that my holocaust be recognized. And that has not happened in America. Nobody knows anything about the native people. Why? Because we are erased from public consciousness; because if you have no victim you have no crime.

The challenge that people of conscience face is to come clean, become honest and recognize our demands. People must see the interlocking interests between their own ability to survive and indigenous peoples’ continuing cultural sustainability. I am absolutely sure that our societies could live without yours, but I’m not so sure that your society can continue to live without ours.

All across this continent there are native peoples, in small communities with populations of 100, 500, even 5,000, who are trying to regain control of their community and their territory. I’ll use my own community as an example. Here is our story.

The White Earth Reservation, located at the headwaters of the Mississippi, is about 34,000 hectares. It is very good land. A treaty reserved it for our people in 1867 in return for relinquishing a much larger area of northern Minnesota. There are 47 lakes on the reservation. There’s maple sugar, there are hardwoods and there are all the different medicine plants my people use: our reservation is called ‘the medicine chest of the Ojibways’. We have wild rice, we have deer, we have beaver, we have fish – every food we need. On the eastern part of the reservation there are stands of white pine. On the part furthest west there used to be buffalo, but this area is now farmland, situated in the Red River valley.

Our traditional forms of land use and ownership are similar to those of a community land trust. The land is owned collectively, and we have individual or, more often, family-based usufruct rights: each family has traditional areas in which it fishes and hunts. In our language the words anishinabeg akiing describe the concept of land ownership. They translate as ‘the land of the people’, which doesn’t infer that we own our land but that we belong on it.

In 1887 the General Allotment Act was passed. The Federal Government divided our reservation into 30-hectares parcels of land and allotted each parcel to an individual, hoping that through this change we would somehow become yeoman farmers, adopt the notion of progress, and become civilized. Then, after each Indian had received an allotment, the rest of the land was declared ‘surplus’ and given to white people to homestead. On our reservation almost the entire land base was allotted, except for some pinelands that were annexed by the state of Minnesota and sold to timber companies.

By 1920, 99 per cent of original White Earth Reservation lands was in non-Indian hands. By 1930 many of our people had died from tuberculosis and other diseases, and half of our remaining population lived off-reservation. Three generations of our people were forced into poverty and made refugees in this society.

We have watched the destruction of our ecosystem and the theft of our resources. In not controlling our land we are unable to control what is happening to our ecosystem. So we are struggling to regain control through the White Earth Land Recovery Project. Our strategy is to strengthen our own traditional economy – thereby strengthening our traditional culture as well – so that we can produce 50 per cent or more of our own food. We are rich in terms of wild rice. The Creator, Gitchi Manitu, gave us wild rice, said we should eat it, said we should share it; we have traded it for thousands of years. A lot of our political struggle is, I am absolutely sure, due to the fact that Gitchi Manitu did not give wild rice to Uncle Ben to grow in California.

White people who live there are deathly afraid of our gaining control over half our land base, which is all we’re trying to do. I’m sure they are afraid we will treat them as badly as they have treated us. I ask you to shake off your fear. There is a lot to be learned from our knowledge, but you need us in order to learn it.

Winona LaDuke is an environmentalist and Native American indigenous-rights activist. This is an edited version of a talk first delivered at the 13th Annual EF Schumacher Lectures in the US. In December 1996 Winona will teach at Schumacher College, UK. For details Tel: +44 (0)1803 865934, fax: +44 (0)1803 866899.

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