November 21, 2005

Activist LaDuke Speaks On Cultural Education

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Early Friday evening, activist Winona LaDuke, consumer advocate and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader’s running mate in the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections, spoke on “Moving Towards a Multi-Cultural Democracy.”

During her two-hour, extemporaneous presentation in Warren Hall B45, which was peppered with readings from her newest book, Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming, LaDuke discussed American history, repatriation, reservation life and genetic engineering.

LaDuke, a member of the Mississippi Anishinaabeg, greeted her audience in the Native American language of Ojibway and thanked STARS, the Cornell Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Group, for inviting her to Ithaca. The student organization, which operates under the auspices of Cornell Hillel, sponsored “Genocide Awareness Week.”

LaDuke addressed the Native American holocaust, which, she advanced, is forgotten by many Americans and ignored by most mainstream historical texts.

“The mythology of America is mediated on the denial of the native,” LaDuke said. American students are taught “the greatest hits” of America history, and Native Americans are reduced to caricatures.

“History books do not discuss holocaust in a real manner,” LaDuke said. “Native people do not become real people with real human rights. The discussion of holocaust, and the discussion of reconciliation, is fundamental to how you make an America.”

To illustrate how little most Americans know about indigenous peoples and their roles in American history, LaDuke asked who in attendance could name 20 tribes. There are nearly 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States, and there were only a handful of volunteers in the audience. LaDuke used several examples to illustrate America’s problematic history. She began with the siege of Fort Pitt, part of Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, during which British troops used “the first weapons of mass destruction,” blankets knowingly infected with smallpox, on Delawares.

A century later, the country, enamored of Manifest Destiny ideals and certain of its exceptionalism, treated Native Americans with similar enmity and intolerance. The federal government’s “Scorched Earth” policy, which centered on the systematic slaughter of nearly 50 million buffalo, had horrible repercussions. Resultant human deaths, coupled with severe ecological consequences, were damning.

LaDuke emphasized that brazen politicians and military officers have unashamedly disregarded laws and treaties throughout the United States’ history.

Colonel George Custer famously headed to the sacred – and legally protected – Black Hills, part of the Dakota Territory, in 1874, and subsequently began the Black Hills Gold Rush. LaDuke pointed out the situation’s depressing irony.

“The people who should be the richest in the world are the poorest,” she said.

After her historical discourse, LaDuke turned her attention to repatriation, an issue with which indigenous peoples in the United States continue to struggle. Thousands of sacred artifacts are scattered across the country in museums and private collections, and federal laws make their return difficult, if not impossible.

“I cannot understate the importance of repatriation for indigenous peoples,” La Duke said. “The question of how you heal from grief is tied to repatriation.”

LaDuke argued that the genocide America waged against its indigenous peoples cannot be placed in a purely historical context.

“It’s not a historic, it’s a present circumstance,” she said. “We suffer from an ongoing traumatic stress.”

Today, many Native Americans, including LaDuke, live on reservations. The communities are affected by extreme poverty, alcoholism and depression.

“Reservations are not easy places to live on,” LaDuke said. “Pretty much everything you don’t want to have, we have.”

Despite the hardships most Native Americans face, LaDuke emphasized that more hand-outs and federal programs will not be curative.

“Indigenous people aren’t asking for charity,” she said. ‘I don’t want programs, I want justice.” Although Nader ran for president in 2004, the Green Party’s membership did not endorse him or his new running mate, Peter Camejo, as their candidates. Although LaDuke first supported Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), she backed Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) after he secured the Democratic Party’s nomination.

LaDuke remains politically active, advocates against genetic engineering and large agribusinesses, and encourages fellow citizens to reexamine and revise America’s energy policies.

“You cannot fix many of the issues that face Native Americans today without fixing America’s energy policies,” LaDuke said. “We have the most inefficient energy system in the world.” When an audience member asked how she can best engage individuals with whom she disagrees, especially when they are from different backgrounds, LaDuke encouraged her to use intelligent, inclusive discourse.

“Don’t just preach it to the choir,” La Duke said. “Don’t be an island of political correctness unto yourself.”

After the lecture, Haber and his peers seemed pleased with LaDuke’s lecture and message. “We really wanted to focus our attention on forgotten genocides, and we didn’t want to deal with it in a stodgy, academic way,” Haber said. “To have someone who is actively working to remedy that problem is what our intention was.”

Elisabeth Becker ’06, STARS’s treasurer, appreciated LaDuke’s emphasis on racism as a present-day problem.

“I think that she demonstrated the prejudices in our society to this day, and underlined that racism is not a problem of the past, but one that we must continue to try to conquer today,” Becker said. “Her descriptive narrative was illustrative of the failures of our country to provide ‘equal opportunity’ and the continued denial of the genocide that took place in America.”

Archived article by David Austin Gura
Sun Senior Writer