PEMBROKE — Genetic engineering, climate change and history were all on the menu as an environmental activist and former two-time vice presidential candidate shared what she called the “covenant” American Indians have with their food.
About 60 students and faculty from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and local residents came to The Regional Center at COMtech to hear Winona LaDuke’s presentation on ecological sustainability and self-sufficiency on Thursday. The presentation was part of UNCP’s Native American Speakers Series and the 2013 Conference of American Indian Women of Proud Nations, which began Wednesday and concludes today.
LaDuke, an Anishinaabe Indian, said food is a lifeline to Americans Indians’ culture and heritage, saying the Anishinaabe tribe was told to “go to where food grows on the water,” which led them to the rice paddies of Minnesota. She highlighted her point in a video showing Anishinaabe men harvesting wild rice during an annual ritual on their reservation.
“It’s not just a commodity,” LaDuke said. “It’s a covenant.”
To protect that bond, LaDuke said she and her family waged an eight-year battle against the federal government to stop the genetic engineering of indigenous wild rice.
“If genetic engineering is the answer, what was the question?” she said.
LaDuke said climate change and the use of fossil fuels are causing ecological ruin around the world, especially with the way fuels are extracted from the Earth.
“Carbon belongs in the soil, not in the air,” she said. “When you go to extremes, you do things like frack and blow the tops off of 500 mountains … because you’re desperate.”
LaDuke showed photos of houses in an Alaskan village crumbling because the foundation underneath is melting, which she said is evidence that geography is changing.
“Anyone who thinks climate change isn’t happening is highly delusional,” she said.
LaDuke said the decrease in locally-grown food is destabilizing communities worldwide by “setting ourselves up for dependency” on corporations to deliver food from around the world.
“We used to be able to feed ourselves,” LaDuke said. “The creator didn’t give us Walmart. The creator gave us rice.”
LaDuke said the “antidote” to food dependency is the Indigenous Corn Restoration Project. She said her work in the project includes growing her own varieties of corn that are frost- and drought-resistant and prosper when other corn crops fail.
“Crop diversity gives you a better chance of eating in the time of climate change,” she said.
Rose Stremlau, an associate professor of history at UNCP, called LaDuke’s presentation “wonderful.”
“It’s so important for our campus … to help us understand that it’s not just what we eat in the cafeteria but how the food gets to campus,” Stremlau said.
UNCP freshman Tristan Clark attended the presentation as an extra-credit assignment for his American Indian Studies class.
“She was amazing,” he said. “She gave a very true perspective of American Indian thought.”
Jo Ann Chavis-Lowry, a member of the county Board of Education, said LaDuke reminded her of her own childhood.
“I thought it was right on target,” she said. “My mom made hominy. I remember the stuff she talked about.”
LaDuke founded Honor the Earth, a national advocacy group for native environmental groups, and the White Earth Land Recovery Project, one of the largest reservation-based non-profits in the country. She was Ralph Nader’s running mate during the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections.