An Interview with Winona LaDuke

GFT: You live on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, co-founded Honor the Earth, and are the founding director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project.

“My work at White Earth is largely around the question of how you build a sustainable and durable culturally-based economy in a rural community. I’m a rural development economist, actually, by training.

The work we’ve been doing over the past 20 years started with the issue of wild rice. We had a lot of battles similar to the battle in New Mexico over chile; the question of if any corporation, or in this case it was a state university, similar to New Mexico State University at Las Cruces’ interest in the genetic engineering of chile. The University of Minnesota had an interest in genetically engineering wild rice. I believe that “wild” should actually mean something, like not genetically engineered. And the problem is that when you have an open-air experiment of a genetically engineered crop, it’s not sterile. And so there was the potential of contaminating natural wild rice stands throughout Minnesota. It was a huge battle. I was engaged for about 7 years in the legislature. We do now have a full environmental impact statement required before any proposed introduction, which would include all tribal participation.

Our organization started on the issues of recovery of land and recovery of economy, the foundation of which is a wild rice economy. We have a Farm to School Program. I’m sure you have a few of those here. It was the first tribal Farm to School Program in the state of Minnesota, serving about 100 portions a day; a small school.

Our new farmer partners are the Amish. We get their seconds for the Farm to School. Blemished cabbages are what we’re picking up today. Yesterday we picked up 60 dozen ears of corn. We’ll blanch and freeze them because my organization has a USDA-certified food production facility. We sell wild rice. It’s called Native Harvest. We try to capitalize our local economy with the greatness of the gifts that Creator gave us of food.

I’m a member of Slow Food. We won the international Slow Food Award for our battle to protect rice from genetic engineering and patenting in 2003. I know you have a large Slow Food movement here in Santa Fe. I’m making my plans to go to this year’s Tierra Madre Slow Food event in Italy. It’s an international gathering of farmers, producers and consumers who believe that food should be real, it should be fair, and that it has a cultural and biological basis to it.”

GFT: What else do you know about the situation with chile in New Mexico?

“Chile is one of the reasons we come to New Mexico. And you don’t want to hear that it’s genetically engineered. It’s like wild rice. Some things you don’t mess with. There have been some significant battles on this. You have had the NM Seed Memorial here. We have our battle for wild rice. That was largely around heritage varieties of corn. Your chile varieties are very special and genetic engineering will contaminate them. This is something NM needs to deal with. You need to cut the open-air experiments. If they’re going to do chile studies of genetic engineering, they should do it in an enclosed space because they don’t have a right to the public air to contaminate with pollen from the genetic engineering.

The same battle has been taking place in Hawaii. They passed a ban on genetic engineering of taro and coffee. The Hawaiian coffee growers who grow Kona coffee knew that their ability to market a gourmet crop that was called genetically engineered would be diminished, and also because taro is a sacred plant to the Hawaiians. But the University of Hawaii, similarly, has a genetic engineering set of plots of taro, or kalo, as it is called. You know, this issue of genetically engineering can hit everything. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

GFT: A couple of months ago you testified before the NM Environmental Improvement Board on behalf of New Energy Economy’s petition to have NM utilities cap their greenhouse gas emissions. 44% of NM is rural. What should we be considering in terms of food and energy sustainability?

“That was the basis of my testimony. It was interesting because there were 8 or 9 lawyers who cross-examined me from Public Service Company and the oil and gas industry.

At one point, one of the lawyers asked, “Is that a tribal opinion?” I said, “well, I do believe a have a couple of advanced degrees from Harvard, and so my opinion as a rural development economist would probably have some weight (and 30 years in the field).” It was interesting. It sounded dismissive, as if “a tribal view” does not have the same standing as another view. I happen to be an indigenous person. But I am also a person who has spent a lot of years doing economic work.

The basis of a lot of the work that I do, which has implications for NM, is that on my reservation we did a study of the food economy and the energy economy. We found that in my tribe we spend one quarter of our money on energy. That’s because we’re remote and cold. Town is 38 miles away. No one has a Prius. The houses are inefficient. So we have what’s called “fuel poverty,” which also exists in rural counties in NM, where you’re in the middle of the winter juggling if you’re going to pay your food bill or your heat bill, right?

On my reservation, households spend about $8 million on food. And of that, $7 million is spent off-reservation at Walmart or Bashas, or Food Service of America, Sysco… That’s a quarter of your money that’s spent basically on food. And the million that’s spent on the reservation is spent at convenience stores buying junk food. We’ve got a level of diabetes…

My experience is that in rural economies, the general ‘business as usual’ strategy is to figure out how to generate more cash by attracting businesses to get more employment. Well the reality is that we have a leak that represents almost one half of our economy; food and energy. It’s outsourced. So why try to dump more cash in when it’s just going to roll out? You need to stop the leak.

That takes a local food economy. Because first of all, if you garden yourself or you harvest yourself… I try to get maybe 40% or 50% of our food locally. Maybe you could get more. For other food, for instance, I’m trading with the Amish. I’m not very good at cabbages. And I don’t grow their corn because I grow my own heritage variety and I don’t want their corn getting messed up with mine.

And so, then you trade or you buy, that circulates locally and it generates more employment. It generates more health. It generates long-term food security because the average distance of food that travels today from farmer to table is 1,450 miles. And with the price of oil going up, that’s going to increase food insecurity because actually there’s a lot more oil that goes into food than calories at this point. That’s also a leak.

Look at the same thing with energy. Instead of trying to figure out how to get a larger power plant to serve a rural community, first you get efficient: weatherizing, putting in LEDs. And then you do what we do on my reservation, we put up a solar thermal panel, which, in the wintertime, with a south-facing wall, maybe adds 25% more heat; reduces your heating bill by 25%. That’s a much better plan. It costs maybe $1,000. It can be installed locally by your own people. You don’t need PNM to install it. Young people can install it. Train your young people to for the green economy.

And then you do local wind. I do medium-scale community wind. I put up a 75-kilowatt wind turbine. I’m battling the utility, of course, to get online though because they would like me to go small. I don’t want to stay in the ghetto. They call it the ghetto, the under 40-killowatt ghetto. I want to control power for my facility. It turns out that community controlled energy, wind or solar, generates three times as much revenue for a local community as if you lease out your land for wind to a corporation.

So my analysis, and the analysis that we look at is how you stabilize a rural economy. And that was the argument at the EIB hearing; was I expert in NM? I said, no, but this formulaic set of analysis applies in rural communities everywhere that have a similar set of data.”

GFT: In terms of energy sustainability, what about grid equality access?

“The power lines are antiquated. They’re set up for centralized power production and distribution and they’re inefficient. We’re finding this in Minnesota and in the punitive measures that the power company is taking against me because we’ve battled them. They’re basically making me upgrade the entire grid into the town of Calloway that our wind turbine is going into because they don’t want to do it. But they should do it because they own the power line and they have the grid access.

It’s the same thing with the Public Service Company of NM. At that hearing they were talking about that they’re doing all this renewable energy. They’re doing wind energy; they’re doing some solar, giving out light bulbs. I couldn’t understand why they were not on the side of the proponents of the bill if they were so pro-renewable. I even said, ‘you’re sitting on the wrong side. It’s your responsibility since you control the grid, to insure that there is access for local producers.’

They’re not set up for that access right now. The grid is antiquated. If they control the power lines and actually want to have an efficient system, they need to have a smart grid and a grid that has distributed capacity so that they can collect and distribute power. It’s also a real homeland security issue.”

GFT: What is your message to New Mexicans?

“Well, I hope you guys stand strong. You’ve got a beautiful place down here. Every generation has a responsibility. You’ve got a shot at doing something good here. You’ve got a shot on putting a cap on Co2 emissions in the state of New Mexico, which has national implications because you are big producers. You could provide a leading example of what policy could look like.

I have to say one more thing on behalf of the chile: You’re got a chance to say, “Our chile is worth more than your genetic engineering.” I’d like to see NM do both those things.

There is an Objibwe prophecy called the Seventh Fire. They say that at this point in time, we are a people that have two choices ahead of us. Two paths. One path is well worn but it is scorched. The second path is not well worn and it is green. And it’s our choice upon which path to embark.

I think that’s very much where we are in America, and I think that’s where New Mexico is. You’ve got a shot right now of going renewable and green, of localizing your food systems, of having some green employment opportunities and a healthy durable economy. Why squander that?”

Winona LaDuke (Objibwe) is a rural economist who lives on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. She is program director of the organization Honor the Earth, and founding director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project. Journalist Lorene Mills of Report from Santa Fe contributed to this interview.