Monday, December 1, 2008

Winona LaDuke at Mac

Event: Winona LaDuke, SPEAK! A Series of Conscious Conversations at Macalester
When: November 6th, 2008
Location: Kagin Ballroom for speech/dialogue and Weyerhaeuser Boardroom for Reception, Macalester College

For my second event write-up, I attended Winona LaDuke’s talk at Macalester, entitled “Environmental Justice: Locally, Nationally, Globally.” The format of this event was an informal speech and dialogue with interview style questions by Karin Aguilar-San Juan, a Macalester professor, as well as audience questions. I especially appreciated how informal the event was, and how flexible and comfortable Ms. LaDuke was within it. Some of the most interesting moments were generated by LaDuke’s posing of questions to the audience and their immediate feedback about the relevancy of her statements or which topic she should speak about next. The audience was directly engaged in the process of her remarks, as they developed on the spot and without scripting. She spoke mainly of her work directing the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP); its attempts and triumphs at accessing wind power, restoring the sturgeon population to her reservation, purchasing reservation land that is currently owned by non-Indians and addressing issues of unemployment and education on the Minnesota reservation. Her presence as a speaker was remarkable and the presence of two strong and intelligent women at a major event like this was encouraging and necessary. I felt like LaDuke’s engagement with the audience and attention to Macalester’s work with social justice was challenging and welcomed. She spoke directly to the students in the audience, addressing the need to educate beyond our current, Euro-centric with added flavor conception of diversity in curriculum. She challenged the audience to conceive of a way to think without Empire and she spoke analytically about the conception of America as a melting pot for many cultures. I was particularly interested in her remarks that the idea of a melting pot is erasing- it forces everyone to forget what ethnicity they came from and forge one anew in the mold of the heteronormative, patriarchal, capitalist, white privilege America. She identified herself as a patriot to a land, not a flag, and encouraged the students in the audience to engage in the process of changing our land, beyond voting. After celebrating Barack Obama’s victory, she cautioned and challenged the audience to hold politicians accountable for their energy policies and to prevent myths about “clean coal” and the legitimacy of nuclear power to be reflected in American policy.
LaDuke also recounted many interesting and funny “When I was your age…” experiences with activism in her youth. Her approach was so different from how college students and young adults approach issue-based activism today, but she did not necessarily demand that each student stage larger-scale and more vocal action. Instead she spoke of the progress she has made in shutting down nuclear power plants and her motivations for wanting spiritual justice supported by a reciprocal system instead of a privatized and punitive complex of jailing criminals for profit. Her obvious zeal and commitment, the inquisitive and analytical nature of her comments reflected the work we have done this semester, and her respect for herself and the audience were much more encouraging than direct appeals for help and service. Ms. LaDuke mentioned key ways that students can get involved with her work, including only purchasing true wild rice, not genetically modified versions of it, and volunteering or interning with the WELRP. This summer I taught in the social studies department of a program called LearningWorks, a summer enrichment program geared at kids in grades 6-8. I taught a class to eighth grade students about Native American land rights in Minnesota, so seeing Ms. LaDuke speak after leading my students through making research projects and presenations about her work is incredibly inspiring and although gender roles were not often directly addressed, Ms. LaDuke leadership of such an important organization is representative of successful feminist leadership.

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