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LaDuke Sows Seeds of Reclamation

"I believe that cultural diversity is as important as biological diversity," said Winona LaDuke at the March 15 convocation. LaDuke, a Native American activist, environmentalist, economist, writer and two-time vice-presidential candidate, visited Berea College to share her thoughts on genetically engineered food and the problems facing indigenous peoples today.

Winona LaDuke, speaking to the Berea College audience.

"I'm interested in the dignity of human beings [and] the relationship between human beings and the natural world," explained LaDuke, who hails from the Ojibwe tribe.

LaDuke, whose work for the rights of indigenous peoples, women, children and the environment is known internationally, also spoke at the women's studies department's Peanut Butter and Gender luncheon on the topics of reclamation and recovery. She believes reconciliation between people and the land is necessary, and that people need to return to "a way of thinking that is based on the land."

One of LaDuke's current concerns has to do with the loss of biodiversity that accompanies increased genetic engineering of food and plants. She wants to protect the world's food sources from becoming a "monocrop," and ensure the sovereignty of the seeds that have become an important part of indigenous cultures and spirituality, such as the wild rice of her people's reservation.

"Seeds represent a thread of culture that goes back thousands of years," said LaDuke. She told the audience about a 500-year-old variety of corn specific to a nearby area that had seemingly been lost, but was recently rediscovered in an Iowa seedbank. Her reservation now grows acres of the corn.

"We are people who believe the words 'wild rice' should not be associated with the words 'genetic engineering,'" LaDuke said. She added that domesticated wild rice should be called "tame rice" because it's engineered and harvested by combine, not two Indians in a canoe.

"Food is a centerpiece of our cultural practice," said LaDuke. When LaDuke explained genetic engineering to the Ojibwe elders, they asked, "Who gave them the right to do that?"

LaDuke thought that was a good question. "Who owns lifeforms, and who has the right to change them?" she asked. "Who owns the seeds?" The issue of genetically engineered food has consequences on a worldwide scale, said LaDuke, and she noted that food-related health problems like obesity and diabetes are growing more wide-spread.

One place that has problems with high rates of obesity and diabetes is LaDuke's own reservation, where according to LaDuke, the single largest growth industries are prisons and trash. "Every statistic you don't want to have, we have," she said.

LaDuke also stressed the importance of learning more about indigenous people. They are not "just a page in a history book." And if people are not provided with critical thinking skills and knowledge of actual history, they will not be prepared to deal with the world.

With years of activism under her belt, LaDuke had many things to say to those in the audience that wished to make a difference in their own communities, but concluded with the simple admonition to "just try to be good, be real, and pace yourself."

LaDuke is founder and co-chair of the Indigenous Women's Network. She is also founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project on the Minnesota reservation where she lives. In 2000 and 2004, she ran as vice-presidential candidate on the Green Party ticket alongside Ralph Nader. For more information on some of LaDuke's projects, see the links below.

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