Prominent activist returns to Vashon

Winona LaDuke will speak at the Vashon Theater about environmentalism and indigenous rights.

While the national political climate has left some feeling susceptible to fatigue and hopelessness, the issues have compelled many to campaign for change harder than ever.

From American cities to the four-way stop on Vashon, demonstrators have turned out to protest against inequality, gun violence, bigotry and the actions and policies of the Trump Administration. Their leaders are women, students, teachers, scientists, neighbors and members of every community alike. Among them is renowned environmentalist, farmer and activist Winona LaDuke, who will give a talk about her experiences, life and work at noon Saturday, Feb. 9, at the Vashon Theatre.

Many islanders have found inspiration in LaDuke, who came to Vashon last year and drew hundreds of people to an event at the Open Space for Arts & Community.

LaDuke is the daughter of an Ojibwe father and Jewish mother and has lived and worked on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota for many years. She is a graduate of Harvard and Antioch Universities and was a two-time vice presidential candidate with Ralph Nader for the Green Party. Honor The Earth, the nonprofit she co-founded in 1993 to fight oil pipeline projects, protect tribal lands and advance the rights of indigenous people, was involved in rallying protests of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines. The organization has also taken other actions to protect water and promote sustainability.

Organized by a team of community members, the event at the theater this year, called Protecting The Sacred, will feature live music by island jazz band Some’tet and Native American violinist Swil Kanim, as well as opening ceremonies by Puyallup tribal leaders. All proceeds from the event will support the Puyallup Water Protectors and Honor The Earth’s challenge to the Enbridge Natural Gas Company’s Line 3 pipeline expansion, a 337-mile project costing $2.6 billion that, if built, would stretch across remote northern Minnesota to deliver tar sand oil from Canada to Wisconsin.

“[LaDuke is] really trying to find how to cultivate a movement that celebrates the truth of indigenous world views and the trauma they continue to experience,” said Patrick Christie, an islander, one of the organizers and a professor at the University of Washington School of Marine and Environmental Affairs. “At the same time [she] has the wherewithal to include non-indigenous people who are interested in standing with indigenous people in their struggle.”

The Trump Administration’s rescinding of federal protections for national monuments and rollbacks of Obama-era environmental policies have alarmed many conservationists and refueled worry over the vulnerabilities of pipeline projects such as the Enbridge expansion in Minnesota. Last week, an Enbridge natural gas pipeline exploded in southeast Ohio, injuring two people and destroying several homes. In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline carrying crude oil ruptured and spilled more than 1 million gallons in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The incident, which contaminated the river sediment and required a five-year cleanup, is cited as one of the most damaging and costly inland oil spills in American history.

In the last year, LaDuke has joined Christie at the university to advise a course about growing hemp on tribal lands, a practice that was recently legalized. Christie has also worked with Tulalip Tribes on projects related to conservation. He said that he admires LaDuke’s ability to bring diverse groups of people together; solidarity is tantamount to promoting the welfare of the environment. But of LaDuke, he said environmentalism must be inclusive of indigenous people to be successful — a mandate Christie said could apply to islanders who may be indifferent to the ongoing adversities marginalized people face. He added that he is concerned about a troubling narrative that has emerged along political lines, which he said concludes that it is too late to bother intervening on the behalf of climate causes.

“That is maybe born out of [a feeling that] it’s so overwhelming, and having other priorities, a weariness of massive change or knowledge that they’ll be insulated from the worst effects,” he said.

Missing from the conversation, said Christie, are the direct social effects that will impact those who are already vulnerable in society as a result of a changing climate. He highlighted a major federal climate report released in November that found the economic impact on rural communities and coastal cities will be severe as extreme heat, drought, wildfires and rising seas drive soaring costs, market instability, poor health and lower crop yields. The report also emphasized that the livelihood of indigenous people will be threatened as ecological disruption occurs, and may lead to displacement as communities adapt or relocate.

Ann Edwards, an islander and conservation biologist, praised LaDuke as a talented communicator and important voice in the discussion about responding to climate change with a solution-driven, practical agenda that calls for the preservation of natural resources and utilization of renewable energy.

“That’s what is so amazing about Winona,” she said. “She’s presenting that head-on, but she’s providing a way forward both culturally and logistically.”

To Edwards, the time for debate about the potential impact of climate change is over — she said it has become a worldwide reality whether or not those in power are prepared to acknowledge it.

In 2018, the country watched natural disasters unfold in real time as reports from the ground in North Carolina conveyed the destruction of Hurricane Florence, and later, the devastating wildfires that burned Paradise, California, to the ground.

“As far as climate change denial goes, the evidence is overwhelming,” she said. “You just have to make a decision to look. You can choose not to look, as many of our political leaders are.”

While confronting the facts, said Edwards, is difficult for the unwilling, those who want to make a difference are not powerless. She said LaDuke’s encouragement of individual action stems from the belief that such efforts can transform into broader coalitions — united, people can stop destructive energy development projects and create the momentum to help realize a post-petroleum economy.

Islander Rachel Taylor, who helped organize the event at the theater, said LaDuke’s readiness for the fight makes her a role model for others to follow.

“She’s not a burned out activist,” she said. “She’s engaged with you. She’s authentic, she has a sense of humor, and she’s just really centered in herself and her work.”

Taylor noted that while many acknowledge natural disasters have grown in intensity, and that global temperatures are on the rise, it is no longer enough to take a passive approach to climate change.

“Nature will sort itself out, but if we don’t engage as a society, that sorting itself out might mean no more human beings — as in uninhabitable for us, and that’s nature sorting itself out, nature restoring the balance,” she said. “That is the danger, that we cannot live on this planet anymore.”

Tickets for general admission are $20 and available online at A reception with LaDuke at 3 p.m. at Snapdragon Bakery & Cafe will follow; tickets are $100 and include entry to the main event.

Islanders are invited to continue the discussion after Winona LaDuke’s talk at the Vashon Theatre online at