We Are the Seventh Generation: A Conversation with Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke stands in a field behind three tall stalks of hemp that reach two feet above her head against a cloudy sky,

In the early days of the United States, Ojibwe people worked to ensure prosperity for the next seven generations. They signed treaties with the federal government in hopes of maintaining a link to their ancestral lands far into the future. We are the seventh generation for whom the treaty signers acted. Today, with Native peoples’ rights to land under attack, all Americans would do well to adopt Seventh Generation thinking and repair our connections to land.

“Land Is Life” was the theme of the recent Tales from Planet Earth film festival in Madison, Wisconsin. On the opening night, November 3rd, Wisconsin tribal leaders working to protect treaty rights spoke about their campaigns against a proposed open-pit metallic sulfide mine in Michigan and tar sands pipeline in Minnesota, as well as the erosion of legal protections for Indian mounds. Internationally renowned activist Winona LaDuke then gave the keynote address. She and I had a chance to visit afterward and discussed her work supporting the Water Protectors in Standing Rock, North Dakota, her new project growing industrial hemp on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, and the courage of younger activists.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Patty Loew: There were a lot of people here [at the Tales from Planet Earth film festival] tonight. 

The movie poster from "Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock" depicting a Native woman in a sweatshirt and with ski goggles on her head, looking off to the right with protesters and a bright blue sky in the background.

Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock (Bullfrog Films, 2017). Available on Netflix.

Winona LaDuke: There were a lot of people here tonight. And the movie, now, is Awake: A Dream from Standing RockI’ve seen it a couple times. In a lot of ways, Standing Rock was like a Selma moment for all of us. We were all awake. We were very present. We saw it going down. We were there.

PL: Didn’t you see a lot of parallels to the civil rights movement looking at some of those images from Standing Rock of the dogs and the water cannons? 

WL: We call North Dakota the “Deep North.” They are hateful over there with our Water Protectors. We are getting cases dismissed, but I’m going into North Dakota next week and I feel like I’m going to the front lines. We just had a brutal murder of another Indian woman in Fargo this summer, and I’m just done. I’m done.

What I want to say is that I’m awake. There are a lot of people who are awake. We’re in this time when—you look out there, Patty, and to the South there are hurricanes, to the West there are fires. It’s of biblical proportions.

PL: It’s like Mother Nature is shaking, asking “What are you doing to me?” 

WL: So what are we going to do? I feel like it’s time to begin the transition. It’s time to work on where we want to go. Because our system is failing. I told the story tonight about the four pipelines. Three of them are going down. The last one is this one.

PL: You’re an economist. We’re overbuilt with pipelines already, aren’t we?

WL: Yeah. And production in the tar sands is going down. And electric cars are coming. All we’ve got to do is keep fighting. A Navajo woman said to me, “In our old mythologies and stories, they talked of monster slayers.” She says we need a new generation of monster slayers. I think that’s such a powerful analogy, and it’s so true. It’s a David and Goliath moment, and we’ve got to hang in there because they are weakening. I’ve been at this a while; we all have been. And I’m not battle weary, I’m just irritated at them—Enbridge, in this case—for taking so much of my time. Five years, you know?

Footage of what LaDuke calls a “Selma moment.” Law enforcement use tear gas on protestors near Turtle Island on Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Film by Unicorn Riot, November 6, 2016. 

PL: You talked in your speech about the Sixth Fire and the Seventh Fire. There’s a line in our prophecies that talk about the “new people”—

WL: We’re those ones. We’re awake. We’re alive. We came from wherever we came from, but we’re really conscious. I’ve become so aware of that some days. I hear this stuff and think I’m here.

PL: And others are here, too. There are a lot of non-Native people who, 20 years ago, either had an adversarial relationship with Native people or just didn’t think about them at all. And all of a sudden, they’re paying attention because they realize that their kids wants clean water, too. 

WL: They realize that the paradigm that got us into this is not going to get us out. If you are so poor in your judgement for 150 years, and you destroy so much of the forest and you can’t drink the water, you’re not so smart, are you? For me, I’m trying to re-localize. I do national work, and I love my work. But I had a new grandchild born. I’ve got a lot of people in my community who want me home. I know that I’m going to fight this pipeline off, but I look at my territory and wonder, what if we did it right someplace? What if instead of turning Puerto Rico back into the dysfunctional colony that’s under the Jones Act, where everything that comes into that country has to be taxed more—

PL: Then we scold them when their economy’s not working.

WL: And everyone also forgot that they are U.S. citizens. What if we got behind Puerto Rico at this moment when everyone’s looking at them to give them what they need, which is local food, local solar. I was on my phone today with Standing Rock. The district representative from Cannonball (the village we were all in) called me, and they are working on a solar project. I talked to my staff about it. I was in Standing Rock, and I feel like I gave blood out there. A lot of us did. He said they’re doing this new solar project and they’re ready. I said I’m going to try to help out, because I feel like when we left there we weren’t done. Those people need justice. So our organization, Honor the Earth, is going to try to help them get some solar, because I would like to see justice for that community because what happened to them wasn’t right.

Three men chat at the back of a white van with tools at their feet. One wears a shirt that reads "I've got this sinking feeling about Enbridge."

Solar thermal panels being installed in the home of White Earth tribal members. Photo by Clear Energy Resource Team, May 2014.

PL: As horrible as Standing Rock was, as painful as it was to watch those images, the one thing that I kept thinking about was all of the young people. Seven generations ago our ancestors made decisions that they thought were in our best interests, because they were thinking seven generations ahead. These young people are the seventh generation descended from those treaty signers. 

WL: They are powerful. Yesterday I was in court with Enbridge—watching the attorneys, Enbridge’s expert witnesses. But the people who were strongest in that courtroom, who asked the best questions, were the Youth Climate Interveners. I watched a 23-year-old woman named Akila ask the strongest questions, and I thought you all got this. We’ll do this.

So I’m working on lots of things. Our organization put up 20 kilowatts of solar last week to power a school in our village, Pine Point. I’m super proud of that. And we’re doing a thermal panel manufacturing facility. You put the panel on your south-facing wall and reduce your heating bill.

And I have an industrial hemp permit. I’m going into my third year of growing, and I have a Kickstarter. I’ve growing varieties for fabric. (I’m wearing my hemp shirt.) Until 1920, 80% of the clothing fabric—and rope, and sails—in this country was hemp and the state of Minnesota had 11 hemp mills until 1923. So my next 20-year project is to restart hemp.

PL: People have to be reeducated. 

WL: Wisconsin’s going to take forever, but Minnesota is already moving. I’ve got a permit! My tribe, the White Earth Tribe, has a very successful hemp project.

PL: How’s the White Earth Land Recovery Project coming along?

WL: Good. I don’t direct that project anymore; Robert Shimek does. I am coordinating this Anishinaabe agricultural institute to work on traditional seed and hemp varieties.

Two women sit in adjacent chairs, leaning toward each other smiling for the camera.

Winona LaDuke (right) with Dr. Patty Loew. Photo by Brian Hamilton, November 3, 2017.

PL: By the way, thank you for the 800-year-old squash. 

WL: Oh, did you grow that one?

PL: I did. It grew really well, and I saved the seeds. 

WL: That’s great. It came from out here originally, and when I see these really cool squash I think Oh, there’s my friend! I grew some squash in my yard and wasn’t sure that was it, but then saw it and said Oh, you’re back! 

PL: I feel my tribe’s sovereignty when I’m growing traditional foods again. It makes me feel strong and hopeful. Thank you for that.

WL: I’m hopeful, too. And every day I see something cool that convinced me we’re making it. We’re making the future. Just keep working. Because their system is crumbling, frankly. That’s my economic assessment. So keep your head low, grow your food, get your renewable energy—get your hemp.

PL: And talk to your neighbors about it. 

WL: Right on.

Featured image: Promotional photo for the Kickstarter campaign Winona’s Hemp and Heritage Farm, 2017. 

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission. 

Winona LaDuke is an internationally renowned activist and a leader in the issues of culturally based sustainable development strategies, renewable energy, and food systems. She lives and works on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, and is a two-time vice presidential candidate with Ralph Nader for the Green Party. As Program Director of Honor the Earth, she works nationally and internationally on issues of climate change, renewable energy, and environmental justice with indigenous communities. She also continues national and international work to protect indigenous plants and heritage foods from patenting and genetic engineering. She is the founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, one of the largest reservation-based non-profit organizations in the country. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Patty Loew is a professor in the Medill School of Journalism and Director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern University. She is the author of four books, including Seventh Generation Earth Ethics and Indian Nations of Wisconsin: Histories of Endurance and Renewal. She has also produced several documentary films, including Way of the Warrior, which aired nationally on PBS in 2007 and 2011. A member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, she does outreach work focused on Native American youth and digital storytelling. Website. TwitterContact.

3 Responses

  1. John Germain says:

    Awesome article! I’m a Chippewa living in Alaska. Good to see hemp on a comeback! I’m from the White Earth
    Band. I’m 1/4 but very proud! Thanks for sharing. John

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