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Activist Winona LaDuke on bid for tribal chair: 'Our tribe needs to flourish'

Winona LaDuke of environmental activist group Honor the Earth speaks to a gathering hosted by the Brainerd chapter of the League of Women Voters on Thursday. (Zach Kayser/ Forum News Service)

WHITE EARTH, Minn. -- Longtime activist Winona LaDuke plans to run for White Earth tribal chairwoman at the next opportunity, and says there are four key issues to her campaign.

"I've worked nationally trying to do my best for a lot of years," she said. "Now's the time to step forward -- our tribe needs to flourish."

Her No. 1 priority is to improve the tribal economy.

"We need local businesses, we need local employment," she said. "One hundred and fifty years ago we were feeding your people," she said to a reporter. "We're not now."

No. 2 on her priority list is to implement a "clean slate" program so people with low-level offenses can regain their driver's license and get on with their life.

"We want people to be legal," she said. "You can't keep a job if you can't drive."

No. 3 on her list is constitutional reform, "but inclusive of all the people and other tribes."

Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor received a lot of pushback on constitutional reform "because of the process she used," LaDuke said. "People had to request an affidavit to vote by mail -- people should be able to vote in person."

A new constitution should be approved by a vote of people at the polling places, not just via mail-in ballot, she said.

But she agrees with Vizenor that existing blood quantum restrictions need to change.

"By 2030, we will have problems with blood quantum and will lose membership," she said. "My children are more Indian than me, but it's from other reservations; they can't count that blood here, even though they were raised in White Earth."

Her No. 4 issue is the environment.

"What is good for the land is good for the people -- we need to take care of our environment."

LaDuke has long been active on environmental issues, from potato farming on the Ponsford prairie to the Sandpiper oil pipeline.

Those are her four main points, but "I have a lot of others," she said Wednesday.

"I've traveled a lot internationally and nationally and would like to stay home. I'm 56 years old, I'd just like to serve my community, and through that I can serve a larger community."

LaDuke said the current White Earth Tribal Council "is the easiest for me to work with in the 35 years I've been on the reservation. It's great -- I'm happy to work with them."

She said she has no illusions about the difficulty of the job, or of the campaign ahead.

"To be chairwoman is very difficult," she said. "It is with great deliberation that I make this decision."

She expects a "robust campaign," she added. "There will be great people running who have good hearts -- I will be respectful."

LaDuke is executive director of the Native American environmental group Honor the Earth and has a history in national politics. She was Ralph Nader's Green Party vice presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000. She's also well known for riding on horseback across the state to protest Enbridge's proposed Sandpiper pipeline.

LaDuke's bid comes in the wake of a power struggle that could cost current tribal Chair Erma Vizenor her job. The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe removed Vizenor from its governing board early last week, claiming she overstepped her authority in an attempt to replace the tribal Constitution.

The MCT governs six Minnesota bands, including White Earth, and is led by a board made up of tribal chairs and secretary-treasurers from each band. Vizenor still holds her office on White Earth, but removal from the MCT board leaves her job in the hands of the White Earth Tribal Council.

Meetings have not yet been scheduled, but the council will vote to either force Vizenor out, hold a recall election or take no action at all. In a previous interview Vizenor said she expects a recall election. That could open the field for LaDuke, months before the 2016 tribal election.

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