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Food Sovereignty, Biopiracy and the Future

12th Annual Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture
April 13, 2012

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Now is the time of the Sugar Moon, or the Maple Syruping Moon, “Ziisbaakdake Giizis” in the Anishinaabe language. It’s come on the heels of the Snow Crust Moon and the Broken Snowshoe Moon.

Visiting the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on Tuesday from the White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, Winona LaDuke greeted her audience in Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe or Chippewa), and then said, “Climate change is messing with my moons here.” After listing all 13 of the Anishinaabe moons, she then remarked, “Did you notice that not one of those moons is named after a Roman emperor? Our calendar is based on the land,” she said. “You can do that. It’s okay.”

Known as a leader in culturally-based sustainability strategies, LaDuke is the founder and executive director of Honor the Earth and White Earth Land Recovery Project, as well as an activist, environmentalist, economist, and writer. In 1996 and 2000, she ran for Vice President with Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket. The lion’s share of her work now is to restore indigenous plants and heritage food and to protect from patents and genetic engineering.

A guest of the Center for a Livable Future, and the featured speaker of the 12th Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture, LaDuke shared stories and insights into her work with wild rice and with the preservation of traditional corn varieties in Minnesota. Some of that work has involved experimenting with the best ways to grow and restore the corn varieties, and some of that work has involved years-long struggles with companies such as Monsanto and Dupont, who “own” most of the seeds used today. Some of her work is to investigate the impact of seed “ownership” on communities and on a global scale, beyond the question of intellectual property.

Before European settlers forced native peoples to relocate across the continent, 8,000 varieties of corn were being grown in the Americas. With the forced relocations, and as agriculture became industrialized and monocultures became the dominant form of farming, the number of corn varieties dropped drastically. As director of White Earth Land Recovery, she experiments with growing varieties of corn that are wind-resistant, frost-resistant, and drought-resistant—overall, tougher than the varieties sold by Monsanto.

The Anishinaabe’s most sacred food, she explained, is wild rice. Wild rice is the only grain native to this continent, and its cultivation differs dramatically from the cultivation of rice in paddies. Wild rice grows in lakes, and LaDuke’s project harvests it with traditional methods, “knocking” the rice and drying it on wood.

The daughter of actor, writer and activist Vincent LaDuke, an Anishinaabe, and artist Betty LaDuke, a first-generation Russian Jew, LaDuke has lived on the White Earth Indian Reservation for about 30 years, and advocates for a restoration of local food systems as an antidote to peak oil and a failing cash economy. Biodiversity is necessary, she says, as climate change wreaks havoc with food systems.

There is a relationship between food and our ancestors, she said. “Food is our relatives.” Another of her tenets is that food is medicine. While open to availing herself to advanced technologies available in health and medicine, she prefers to restore indigenous knowledge systems, and seeks there her answers to the questions of how to re-traditionalize public health, and how to re-create a sustainable economy.

The title of Ms. LaDuke’s talk is “Food Sovereignty, Biopiracy, and the Future.” As part of her visit, she met with Center for a Livable Future staff, as well with members of the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health. Information about her work on food sovereignty with the White Earth Land Recovery Project may be found on Native Harvest website.