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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Environmental Activists, Heroes, and Martyrs

Winona LaDuke

Indigenous Environmental and Land Rights Activist

Zachary Gianotti was a 2016-2017 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

“... I don’t want to hear your philosophy if you can’t grow corn.” - LaDuke quoting her father [8]

Winona LaDuke is well-known across many fields. She first became an American  household name in the late 1990’s when she ran on the Green Party ticket as Vice President alongside Ralph Nader [1]. She was chosen for this position because of her background in tribal rights and work on rural economies [1]. Though this is probably what she is best known as, what LaDuke has accomplished outside the arena of nation politics is astounding. Her work as a public speaker has spanned decades, with notable world platform addresses from a young age, and she remains a strong voice today, calling attention to issues of indigenous peoples and environmental causes. LaDuke is an author, activist, politician, and orator who speaks out in the name of the indigenous peoples of North America. Her most recent causes are food sovereignty and renewable energy.

“I would like a graceful exit from a fossil fuel economy.” [8]

Born in 1959, Winona LaDuke was taught the importance of activism from a young age.  LaDuke’s father, Vincent LaDuke or Sun Bear, is Ojibwe, of the Anishinaabeg, from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota and was a Korean war resister and a tribal land rights activist [1, 6]. LaDuke’s mother, Betty LaDuke, who is of Jewish and European descent, was an artist and supported Winona through her primary education [1]. Winona LaDuke went to Harvard for her undergraduate degree in economics and was involved in Indian rights groups there [4]. It was at this time that she first appeared on a worldwide platform when she addressed the UN on Western indigenous peoples’ rights in Switzerland [2].

“My point is that there is a way to transition (out of a fossil fuel economy). What we lack, largely, is a political will.” [8]

After graduating LaDuke went to Minnesota to work in education on a reservation, it was here that she wrote her masters thesis on sustainable rural economies and got involved in activism as one of the founding members of the Indigenous Women’s Network, a group that promotes sustainable initiatives and cultural preservation [4]. While working on the reservation she saw injustices done to the Ojibwe people and how their land was taken from them in violation of the original treaty that formed their reservation [3].  Her first efforts were to go through the government and sue the State for illegally taking the land from the people [3]. This effort did not succeed, but undaunted she formed the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) to buy back Ojibwe land and promote indigenous ways of life like sustainable farming and renewable energy development [4]. Through WELRP, she was able to reclaim much of the land that was taken and promote sustainable development to cultivate food for her people. This is called food sovereignty, the idea of having a right to land and producing healthy food [11]. LaDuke argues that the issues of indigenous peoples are linked very strongly with environmental issues [7]. After her accomplishments on the reservation she reentered the national stage when she ran as Vice President on the Green Party ticket with Ralph Nader. After these endeavors, LaDuke co-founded the indigenous environmental organization Honor the Earth [2].

In the past decade LaDuke has been on the advisory boards for Greenpeace, The Trust for Public Land, and other environmental organizations [2]. All throughout her career she has been writing on the rights of indigenous peoples and environmental issues. Recently she has been speaking out against patenting and genetically modifying indigenous foods [7]. She believes that indigenous rights are strongly rooted in land and food rights, that the food they cultivate is not only a right to them for its use in their environment but also for its spiritual significance [8]. To her, diversity in plant genetics is crucial to their survival [8].

“ have to defend what is of value to you. You cannot sit passively on the side and hope someone else is going to take care of it for you, because that is not going to happen. You have to stand there and put everything at stake, put yourself on the front lines.” [10]

LaDuke has been on the ground with many indigenous land rights protests in recent years. She was present and vocal at the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota as well as the Sandpiper pipeline protest in Minnesota [10].  As of late, LaDuke has shifted the responsibility of organizing protests to her Honor the Earth organization, and she has instead focused her efforts on the larger mission of divestment [12].

LaDuke sees a sustainable future for the world in which food is locally grown and organic. A future where energy sources are innovative and renewable. A strong proponent of solar energy, especially companies like Tesla, LaDuke recognizes that the future needs new technologies in order for our world to stay green, but she also wants us to preserve our traditions and regional foods at the same time [8].

“In our teachings, we have a prophecy called ‘the time of the seventh fire.’ It says we the Anishinaabe people will have a choice between two paths. One is well worn, but it is scorched. The other path is not well worn, but it is green. The time to choose our path is now. It is the choice that is upon all of us. It is a choice between life and death, a choice between oil and water, a choice for our food and our future.” [10]

LaDuke has been a strong proponent of putting Earth first, and in turn putting our future generations first. To this day she fights for the rights of indigenous peoples, both their civil and environmental rights. The work of LaDuke is far from over, she continues to push back against oil pipelines and politicians she views as corrupt [9]. LaDuke has a radical view for the future, one that is a dynamic balance of traditional foods and innovative renewable energy. She is working on a grass roots level to promote healthy and sustainable societies in America.

“Oil has a purpose in the earth. Carbon is supposed to be in the soil, not the air.” [5]


[1] Vaughan, Carson “Environmentalist Winona LaDuke Pushes for Change” Native Daughters:

[2] “Speaking Engagements” Honor the Earth:

[3] Walljasper, Jay “Celebrating Hellraisers: Winona LaDuke” Mother Jones:

[4] Porter, Kelly and Lauren Curtright “Winona LaDuke” Voices from the Gaps. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy:

[5] Berg, Chris “Activist Winona LaDuke discusses the Dakota Access Pipeline and more.” Point of View with Chris Berg:

[6] Nienaber, Georgianne “Winona LaDuke Explores the Militarization of Indian Land Country from Geronimo to Bin Laden.” Huffington Post:

[7] Starr, Karla “Winona LaDuke: The Green activist takes on wild rice and the White House.” Willamette Week:

[8] LaDuke, Winona “Minobimaatisiiwin - the good life | Winona LaDuke | TEDxSitka.” Youtube:

[9] LaDuke, Winona “The presidential cabinet of the 1 percent.” Detroit Lakes Online:

[10] LaDuke, Winona “The Time of the Seventh Fire.” Honor the Earth:

[11] Carter, Majora “Winona LaDuke” The Promise Land:

[12] Katz, Jennifer “Environmental activist Winona LaDuke advocates for divestment” The Mac