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NATIVE SPEAKER: Winona LaDuke brings message of food sovereignty


American Indian activist and scholar Winona LaDuke brought her message of sustainable, traditional food to an audience in UNC Pembroke’s Regional Center on September 19.

LaDuke spoke during the annual conference of American Indian Women of Proud Nations. Her appearance was sponsored by UNCP’s Native American Speaker Series and the Office of Academic Affairs.

A member of the Anishinaabe Tribe in northern Minnesota, LaDuke’s message of food sovereignty for Native people dovetails with the global “slow food” movement that preaches local production and the use of genetically diverse, heritage seeds.

LaDuke’s newest book is “Food is Medicine: Recovering Traditional Foods to Heal the People.” Her White Earth Land Recovery Project foundation is growing rice, corn, squash and other crops.

Food is central to spirituality, politics, economics and health, she said. The message resonates locally.

“Is there a problem with diabetes here?” LaDuke asked. “I noticed several dialysis clinics on my way here. I’d much rather eat well than build more dialysis units.

“Young people don’t know how to cook; I have children, I know,” she smiled. “We’re a set-up for food dependency. Living by example is a key part of my strategy.”

LaDuke said her household is 40 percent food independent, but she would like to grow all the food that feeds her people and become energy independent. Food is a spiritual thing, she says, and for Native peoples, it is also an issue of sovereignty.

LaDuke spoke to an audience of approximately 100 in the Farm Bureau Auditorium of the Regional Center.  Her message hit home with Dr. Deborah Hanmer, coordinator of UNCP’s Sustainable Agriculture Program in the Biology Department.

“We are honored by Winona LaDuke’s visit,” Dr. Hanmer said. “She made a powerful case for listening to the wisdom of Native peoples as we try to move towards a more sustainable future.”

Educated at Antioch College and Harvard, LaDuke was trained as an economist, but her father offered her another take on academic wisdom. “My father told me ‘I don’t want to hear your philosophy if you can’t grow corn.’”

LaDuke is now growing ancient varieties of corn with names like Bear Island Flint, Pink Lady Flour and Pawnee Eagle. Not only is it healthier, it is proving more drought and weather resistant than the genetically modified seed sold by industrial agriculture.

“I don’t consider myself an activist, just a responsible person,” she said. “But if I had a growing season like you have, I’d really be rockin’. The Creator didn’t give us Wal-Mart; he gave us things like rice.”

To learn more about White Earth’s food and other projects, go to