Activism On and Off the Reservation

BARSAMIAN: What was it like addressing the United Nations when you were a teenager?

LA DUKE: Daunting. I was raised on the West Coast. I went to school on the East Coast. I grew up in a much politicized family. I did some research for a non-governmental organization to the UN called the International Indian Treaty Council. It was the first native NGO at the UN. They asked me to do some research on mining issues and multinationals on reservations and to present it to the UN when I had just turned 18. I went over there. My boss left a note saying that he was leaving and that I had to go meet the AIM leadership.

That’s the American Indian Movement?

There I was looking at Russell Means, Bill Means, Vernon Bellecourt, Clyde Bellecourt, and Phyllis Young. The launch of my political career was kind of a baptism of fire process, which is pretty much linked to the rest of it. I had the benefit of presenting my research to the UN. Then I asked if I could go and work in these communities that were impacted. So I began by working down in the Navajo reservation in the Southwest on uranium mining, and then I moved up to South Dakota and worked there for some time—mostly on uranium issues, trying to stop mines from opening up, translating documents from academic government-ese into common English and then into the local languages—Navajo, Hopi, or Lakota.

This was in your late teens, while you were still a student at Harvard?

I took a lot of time off from school. I went back and forth to Harvard, wrote research papers, mostly on this. I have degrees in native economic development and in rural development. Pretty much all I know about is reservation economics and reservation development issues.

The term “a person of color” was not being used at that time. How was it for you at school?

I grew up in Ashland, Oregon. It was a small town. I came from a bicultural family. My mom is a Russian Jew from New York and my father is an Ojibwe. So it was a no-win situation. My parents were both very political. I was raised in the middle of the Vietnam War. My parents were anti-war activists. My stepfather was in the picture at that point in time. I was pretty much across the board unpopular at school—I was the only Indian at the time. When I went to Harvard I found that there were a lot of people who were more like me. I became politicized over a period of time. I realized that the fact that I was unpopular in my school didn’t have to do with being a bad person as much as it had to do with issues of race and prejudice.

What about gender bias?

Gender bias, I would say, too, but all of these things. I had the benefit of being with a lot of people of color at Harvard. I enjoyed that. It expanded my horizons. It was also during the middle of the divestment campaign for South Africa.

Did you get involved with that?

I sure did. I was with the American Indians at Harvard, which was a small group. We were there with the African American students. It was a really good politicization process. At the same time, I was working on the issue of multinationals on the reservations, the same multinationals that are in Namibia and South Africa.

That divestment campaign in the 1980s, primarily on U.S. college campuses, was quite successful and a good model.

It was a very good model. It was, I believe, the foundation for some of our work on James Bay in northern Canada. A lot of campaigns we waged trying to stop the megadams up there—that would flood an area the size of Connecticut or impact an area the size of New England—was based on the same model. You pay your tuition, you should have some say that your tuition shouldn’t go for violating other people’s human rights.

To go to recent events, Iraq is denounced by many political leaders and the media. They say it cannot be trusted to honor its agreements. What is the U.S. record on agreements and treaties with native peoples?

Pretty dismal. Indian people find it so ironic that the U.S. is all about Iraq keeping their agreements. The U.S. has no record of keeping agreements with native people. I always find it ironic because Indian people are saying our treaty rights need to be recognized. We’ll have a court decision like in Minnesota that recognizes we have the right to harvest in the northern third of the state outside our reservation borders. The non-Indian people will say, those are ancient rights. That’s how the press refers to it. I think to myself, well, that Constitutions pretty ancient, too isn’t it? There are certain things that are the law and those treaties between nations are the law. According to the Constitution that’s the law of the land.

That might connect with the invisibility of Native Americans in the U.S. culture. When you hear discussions, if people of color are mentioned at all, it will be African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, but Native Americans don’t seem to register on that Richter scale.

My theory is that the mythology of America is denial of Manifest Destiny, the great emptiness that is out there. You cannot discover something if somebody lives there. You create a mythology that was this vast, untamed wilderness and that nobody was there. The mythology of America says that there were “a few Indians, and those Indians died mysteriously—we made some mistakes, like Sand Creek in Colorado or Wounded Knee—but most of the mythology of the great expansion of America is based on the denial of the existence of native people. America has been for 500 years, in the process of denial of holocaust. I don’t say somebody’s holocaust is worse than anybody else’s, but I will say that we have to acknowledge that holocaust occurred. So today, native people have been totally removed from the American psyche even though we permeate America. A third of the country is named in indigenous names—states and river systems. We are the food that people eat, the technology, in all of these things, but at the same time, we get no intellectual property rights credit for that. Ask people what kind of Indians they know, most people can name Indians from Westerns. What’s happened over time is that the image of the native person has become a caricature. You look now and the only two Indian women that we know about are Sacajawea and Pocahontas. Why did they permeate America’s consciousness and get in there with Disney? Because they helped white guys. They are really not the imagery of native people, native women.

One of the topics that you write and talk about is environmental racism.

Environmental racism links native people to other poor people of color. The problem is that in the case of native people, this is a systemic issue. This is the relationship between the settler and the native. This is the relationship between an industrial society and an indigenous society. The issues that occur in the native community today are not new. We have a couple of hundred years of environmental destruction in the Americas. The best example is the destruction of the buffalo. You can’t remove 50 million buffalo from the Great Plains, remove the single largest herd of migratory animals that ever existed and not have a huge environmental impact. That’s part of the relationship between the native people because that was a military policy. So environmental racism is a term used to talk about a disproportionate share of environmental problems in communities of color. Few benefits, more impact. And native people are part of that.

You had a rather stinging criticism of some portions of the establishment environmental movement.

The environmental movement by and large comes out of a very white, middle-class preserve. In my gut, I want all American people to engage with nature, to re-establish a relationship with earth. Environmentalism is a strange term. I think it is really about rediscovering your humanity and how your humanity relates to life. What we have is a colonial society in America which is trying to come to terms with the fact that it’s run out of frontiers. The depth of environmentalism, the relationship of humans to natural world is what we need to recover. Unfortunately, mainstream environmental groups are still very much preoccupied in this centerpiece.

My experience with the big ten groups is first of all, you can’t have boards and the majority of your staff be all white, privileged, middle-class people and expect that they can make decisions for the rest of the world, or make a set of decisions that are reflective of native communities. Native communities today face environmental threats on most of our reservations. Two-thirds of uranium resources in the country are on Indian lands; one-third of all Western low-sulfur coal. We have the single largest hydroelectric project on or lands, the James Bay project. We have nuclear waste dump proposals on reservations. Most of the mainstream, environmental groups do not deal with those issues. They want to save this parcel or that parcel or fix this greenway. These issues are convenient to those groups. By and large they do not engage in building partnerships with native communities or other communities of color.

You went to Chiapas and wrote an article for Indigenous Woman, the journal of the Indigenous Women’s Network, which you founded. You comment that “Chiapas is a wealthy region in theory.” This resonates with a lot of geography of North American native peoples as well—wealthy regions in theory—but not in reality.

That’s right. It’s just like the question of why Indian people are poor. They have the poorest socio-economic statistics, the worst health statistics. I talked to the Rotary Club in Park Rapids one day. They said: “You Indians are all up there on welfare and you’re lazy. If you’d just go get yourselves a job, you’d be okay, You’d have a lot more self-respect and you wouldn’t be so poor. I believe that that is a statement that is not isolated to that little border town. Some people say, “why don’t you Indians get with the program. Pull yourselves up by the bootstraps. I said the problem is that you guys have our boots. We can’t find our bootstraps because you have our boots. You control all the land on my reservation. Ninety percent of it is held by non-Indian landowners.”

When you said the Great Plains was the site of the greatest single loss of life, did you mean the buffalo herds?

I meant the whole thing. You have no biodiversity left on the Great Plains. You go from 250 different species of grass in the natural Great Plains that existed in the indigenous prairie grass patch, not to mention all those other creatures that were out there. You go down to a Nebraska wheat field and you’ve got one variety. One seed is there, mono-cropped. That is what the problem is. If the winter of 1996 didn’t teach Americans—I think they lost over 400,000 cattle. In October 1997, they lost 15,000 cattle right outside Denver. Why is that? Because cattle do not belong in this ecosystem. Frank and Debra Popper, demographers from Rutgers University, have a proposal called called “Buffalo Commons Proposal.” They talk about the fact that what occurred in the Great Plains in terms of the whole rise and fall of the farming culture there is the result of the largest economic and ecological miscalculation in American history. What America has done to the Great Plains is what America has done to the continent.


David Barsamian is the founder of Alternative Radio, a speaker and author of numerous books of interviews with Noam Chomsky and others.