Winona LaDuke – Ojibwe

Published on January 28, 2013 by Amy

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Winona LaDuke
Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke (born 1959) (Anishinaabe) is an American Indian activist, environmentalist, economist, and writer. In 1996 and 2000, she ran for vice president as the nominee of the Green Party of the United States, on a ticket headed by Ralph Nader.

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She is currently the executive director of both Honor the Earth and White Earth Land Recovery Project, which she founded at White Earth Reservation in 1989. She started living at the reservation for the first time in 1982, after graduating from college, and worked as a principal of a high school. LaDuke became an activist in Anishinaabe issues, helping found the Indigenous Women’s Network in 1985 and becoming involved in continuing struggles to regain reservation land lost since allotments to individual households in the nineteenth century. The WELRP holds land in a conservation trust for the benefit of the tribe.

Early life and education

Winona (meaning “first daughter” in Ojibwe) LaDuke was born in Los Angeles, California, to Vincent and Betty (Bernstein) LaDuke. Her father, an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) from White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, enrolled his daughter as a member of the tribe at an early age. As a young man, he had been an activist on treaty rights and tribal issues, particularly the loss of lands. The reservation was one-tenth of its original size, and the losses contributed to unemployment and other problems of its people. After his marriage, he worked as an actor in Hollywood, with supporting roles in Western movies, a writer and, by the 1980s, as a spiritual guru under the name Sun Bear. Her mother was of Russian Jewish descent, and became an artist. They separated when Winona was five and her mother took a position as an art instructor at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, then a small logging town. LaDuke grew up mostly in Ashland.

Both parents were activists; influenced by her father, LaDuke became interested in tribal issues early. She attended public school and was on the debate team in high school, placing third in a state competition as a senior. She went on to do her studies at Harvard, where she became part of a group of Indian activists. She graduated in 1982 with a degree in rural economic development.

LaDuke never lived at White Earth until after graduating from college. She went there without knowing the Ojibwe language or many people, and was not quickly accepted. She worked as principal of the high school on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. At the same time, she was doing research for her master’s thesis on the reservation’s subsistence economy and quickly became involved in local issues. She completed an M.A. in Community Economic Development at Antioch University.


While working as a principal on the reservation, LaDuke became an activist. In 1985 she helped found the Indigenous Women’s Network. She worked with Women of All Red Nations to publicize the alleged high level of forced sterilization among Native American women.

Next she became involved in the struggle to recover lands for the Anishinaabe. An 1867 treaty had originally included a territory of more than 860,000 acres for the White Earth Indian Reservation. Under the Nelson Act of 1889, an attempt to have the Anishinaabe assimilate by adopting a European-American model of subsistence farming, communal tribal land had been allotted to individual households, some of whom later sold to non-Natives; that and other causes had resulted in much of the land being lost from tribal control. By the mid-20th century, the tribe held only one-tenth of that territory.

In 1989 LaDuke founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) in Minnesota with the proceeds of a human rights award from Reebok. The goal its to buy back land within the reservation that had been bought by non-Natives and to create enterprises that provide work to Anishinaabe. By 2000, the foundation had bought 1200 acres, which it held in a conservation trust for eventual cession to the tribe.

The non-profit is also working on reforestation of reservation lands. It markets traditional products, including wild rice harvested by the tribe. It has started an Ojibwe language program, a herd of buffalo and a wind-energy project.

LaDuke is also Executive Director of Honor the Earth, an organization she co-founded with Indigo Girls in 1993. It was later sponsored by the Seventh Generation Fund, Indigenous Women’s Network and the Indigenous Environmental Network. The Native-led organization’s mission is “to create awareness and support for Native environmental issues and to develop needed financial and political resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities. Honor the Earth develops these resources by using music, the arts, the media, and Indigenous wisdom to ask people to recognize our joint dependency on the Earth and be a voice for those not heard.”

Political career

In 1996 and 2000, in addition to her many other activities, LaDuke ran as the vice-presidential candidate with Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket. She was not endorsed by the tribal council, which seldom endorses any national party candidate. Due to the many years of abuses or neglect by the federal government, most tribal members do not vote in national elections and pay little attention to its politics. LaDuke endorsed the Democratic Party ticket for the president and vice-president in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

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