‘Land is Life’: Winona LaDuke honors the Earth at film festival opening

December 6, 2017

For the past five years, Native Peoples activist and registered Ojibwe Tribe member Winona LaDuke battled with crude oil companies over the controversial pipeline projects over Indigenous owned land. This year she was invited to speak at the Tales from Planet Earth (TfPE) film festival about how she honors her heritage, her ancestors and the Earth as she fights to protect them.

In addition to LaDuke, other prominent Indigenous leaders featured at the opening event for the film festival included Jon Greendeer of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Gary Besaw of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, Dylan Jennings of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Jerry Jondreau of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of the Lake Superior Chippewa, and Patty Loew of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and former UW-Madison professor.

The TfPE film festival is a major event of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment within the Nelson Institute, aiming to motivate and inspire action in everyday citizens through compelling visual film narratives. The biennial festival began in 2007 and completed its sixth iteration in 2017 under the direction of Gregg Mitman, Professor of Environmental Studies, and Peter Boger, a graduate of the CHE doctoral program.

The festival hosted 18 films and over 1,100 hours of environmental storytelling, focused on the theme “Land is Life.” Due to recent conflicts over the Dakota Access Pipeline and other corporate land disputes, TfPE chose “Land is Life” to be its theme to highlight the struggles Native people still face when it comes to claiming their right to land ownership.

LaDuke said taking care of the land is important not just for the present but also the future. “I look out there and I think about what my village is going to look like 50 years from now, 100 years from now?” LaDuke said. “That’s a question for all of us. It’s really a question of ‘Who gets to determine your future?’”

LaDuke said she had the opportunity to start thinking about those issues at an early age, as she worked with Indigenous cultural affairs in the energy sector. Over the years, she saw how unjust government services can be towards Indigenous People.

LaDuke noted the most prominent example as being the U.S. vote against the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People. Ultimately, the U.S. reversed its decision in 2010, but it was the last country to adopt the declaration. She said this was representative of the “predatory mentality” of the state government and believes this kind of behavior needs to systematically change before society can improve.

“I think about ‘What kind of society do we want to live in?',” LaDuke said. “We want to live in a place where no matter what color you are you’re treated with dignity.”

As the talk came to a close, LaDuke reflected on her personal experience with Standing Rock and how it helped her remember her own identity and what it means to be free. She believes these experiences connected her to ancestors and allowed her to have success in her fight for the land.

LaDuke also urged the audience to think about how their actions impact the health of the planet and what sort of benefit it brings to society. She shared a story about how a spirit came to her nephew and gave him a message to take action and live life according to the values of his people.

“How long are you going to let others determine the future for your children? Are we not warriors? When our ancestors went into battle, they did not know what the consequences were going to be. All they knew was if they did nothing, things would not go well for their children,” LaDuke recounted. “Do not operate out of a place of fear. Operate out of a place of hope, because with hope, everything is possible.”