Winona LaDuke: A Leader of the Green Revolution

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

After she returned to her hemp farm by horse from a nearby northern Minnesota town, Winona LaDuke talked to us about the work she is doing. In all of her conversations, interviews, and activism the overall message is the same: We do so many things very inefficiently, without regard to basic rules of relationship that any mother teaches her child. We give too much time and energy, literally, to an economy that does not work well.

There are many ways for individuals and communities to do things differently. We all have the potential, LaDuke says, to be doulas to the next economy.

The Goodness of Hemp

LaDuke has been developing a textile economy based on hemp. “It has been a central plant to the world,” she says.

At Winona’s Hemp and Heritage Farm, she and her team are experimenting with different varieties of the plant. They are working with the White Earth Tribal Council to create a strategic plan for the development of a tribal hemp industry on White Earth and as a national model.

The U.S. hemp industry was estimated to be worth $688 million in 2016, partly driven by the demand for hemp seed and oil in foods such as granola and in body care products. Many products are imported from China, followed by France.

Hemp comes from the Cannabis sativa plant species. The drug variety comes from the same species, but hemp has lower amounts of THC and higher concentration of CBD, which minimizes any psychoactive effects. It is one of the fastest growing plants and was first spun into fiber 50,000 years ago. By 1920, it was the source of 80 percent of the clothing in the U.S. During World War II, hemp was largely used for uniforms, canvas, and rope. A 1942 film called “Hemp for Victory” extolled its virtues for the war effort.

Hemp can be used to make paper, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, food, animal feed, biofuel, among other things. It is useful for carbon sequestration. One innovator is looking into how hemp can be used to replace lithium batteries, such as those used for solar energy.

LaDuke promotes hemp partly because the manufacturing and washing of synthetic fabrics spreads pollutants and wastes resources.

As she reports on her website, research has found that microfibers in synthetic clothing travel through laundry into wastewater plants; 40 percent of this small plastic pollution ends up in lakes and rivers, and the fish we eat. Nylon, polyester, and rayon are all wasteful and polluting processes.

Cotton is a good product, LaDuke says, except it consumes a disproportionate amount of water to produce 20 million tons of cotton annually, and accounts for 24 percent of global sales of insecticides, which leads to aquifer and lake contamination.

Hemp, on the other hand, “is about three times the strength of cotton, is resistant to mold, requires little water or pesticides, and leads to healthier soils.”

At one time, Minnesota had 11 hemp mills, in towns like Winona and Stillwater. With the growth of the fossil fuel industry, and global expansion, corporations began to take textile manufacturing offshore, largely to Asia. This led to an addiction to cheap clothing, LaDuke says, “made in places like the sweatshops of Bangladesh.”

LaDuke found milling equipment in Europe that was due to be shipped to her in May, until the pandemic grounded it.

Seeds and Regeneration

LaDuke has formed the non-profit Anishinaabe Agricultural Institute, which is engaged in rematriation of seeds. They use heritage and Indigenous varieties that have been preserved in Europe and the Dakotas, to plant crops that require fewer resources. In addition to hemp, they are growing heritage corn, beans, squash, artichokes, potatoes, and ceremonial tobacco from seeds that have been stored in museums from the pre-fossil fuel era.

Her regenerative agricultural process involves using traditional fertilizers, such as manure and fish guts taken from nearby Red Lake, so that the soil stays as healthy as the food. The farm is experimenting with prairie restoration, different irrigation techniques, biodiversity — including helpful insects — and restoring the tribe to more organic agriculture in order to move away from imported junk food.

She works alongside Amish farmers, who also have a sustainable community-based economy. Together, they trade for goat cheese, sell leathers, and ride into town to exchange with urban markets.

In a talk hosted by Speak Out, a national non-profit that educates and inspires young people as activists, LaDuke talked about how large-scale distribution and processing systems cannot keep up to the huge network we have built for global sales. When that corporate supply chain collapses, as it will continue to do in future crises, she says, we are overwhelmed by our own products.

Why, LaDuke asks, does shrimp caught in Scotland go to China to be deveined before being shipped to the U.S.? Why is COVID-19 requiring industrial farms to bury uneaten potatoes, dump millions of gallons of milk, and destroy hundreds of thousands of unhatched eggs?

Our “cannibal economy” of today, as she puts it, does not work. This is especially noticeable now, when overlapping habitats and our reliance on air travel led to the quick transmission of a pandemic.

LaDuke refers to her farm area in the White Earth community as “Where the Wild Things Are.” She aims to get back to a sustainable ecosystem, when there were 8,000 varieties of corn and 50 million buffalo. The intention, LaDuke says, is to “build what matters here, and to use pipelines for people, to reaffirm relationships. We have relinquished too much of our own power.”

The next economy, she reminds us, is a compassionate one that treats resources as part of a cycle, rather than something to use and discard. “If you want to be part of the revolution,” she says, “just do it. There is no time like the present.”


Winona LaDuke’s talk at a Minnesota Women’s Press event

• “Being a Doula to the Next Economy,” by Winona LaDuke, one-hour talk by Winona ($5)