Activist Winona LaDuke

The environmental activist discusses her documentary First Daughter and the Black Snake.

Winona LaDuke, focus of the new documentary "First Daughter and the Black Snake", is an author, activist, and former vice presidential candidate for the Green Party. She lives and works on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota where she creates sustainable development projects.

A graduate of Harvard and Antioch Universities, she has written extensively on Native American and environmental issues. She is a former board member of Greenpeace USA and co-founded Honor The Earth with the Indigo Girls and serves as its executive director.

Her latest text is The Winona LaDuke Chronicles.

Follow Winona LaDuke on Twitter.

Follow Winona LaDuke on Facebook.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

The satellite news trucks and celebrities may have left Standing Rock, but the struggle is far from over there. Tonight then, a conversation with the environmental activist at the forefront of this battle, Winona LaDuke, we’ll get an update on Standing Rock.

Then we’ll pivot to a conversation with singer, Faith Evans, about her new duet album, posthumously with her late husband, The Notorious B.I.G.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Winona LaDuke and Faith Evans in just a moment.

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Tavis: Winona LaDuke is a Native American activist and a long-time warrior for the environment. Her new text is called “The Winona LaDuke Chronicles” and she’s now the subject of a new documentary called “First Daughter and the Black Snake”. Before our conversation, here now a clip from that film.


Tavis: Pretty aggressive commercialism. We’ll talk more about that in a second. Let me start, though, by asking specifically about the Standing Rock matter. I was in Standing Rock with Jonathan Demme, the late great filmmaker, our last collaboration. We do a number of these over the years, but our last work together was at Standing Rock.

So we were there December 4 or 5, whatever day that was when the announcement came that there was going to be a stay in the pipeline and there were cheers and celebration and adulation all around Standing Rock, as you well know. But the ground has sort of shifted again — no pun intended — since that announcement. What’s the update on Standing Rock specifically?

Winona LaDuke: Well, as you know, Trump moved ahead with approving all the permits so that they could continue to put the pipes in. They did have a leak. They are not actually fully operational yet, the Dakota Access Pipeline. In mid-April, they had a leak, so they’re still trying to figure out how to make their dysfunctional system work.

There are a lot of questions that they’re ever going to need that pipeline. After all, there’s only 900,000 barrels of oil coming out of Standing Rock or coming out of North Dakota right now. 900,000 barrels a day of oil coming out of North Dakota.

Projected in two years, there’ll be 900,000 barrels of oil coming out, so I don’t know why they need a 570,00 barrel-a-day pipeline. That’s the point. But meantime, not moving ahead too much, but a lot of people have been charged. As you likely know, 840 people were charged up there in North Dakota for defending water, water protectors.

You know, we call it the deep north up there and there’s a lot of people that are facing trials. And North Dakota continues to try to move ahead with that, although we did have some acquittals. So very tough. Spring has, you know, come to Standing Rock. Still some really big questions like, you know, I did some math.

And the $3.9 billion they spent on that pipeline, they could have done a lot better stuff with it like 323 2-megawatts turbines, wind turbines, solar panels for 61,000 houses. It’s like what do you want to do with your money? So it’s really a pipeline to nowhere and it’s really a bad project, but is moved ahead with the Trump administration.

Tavis: There are two or three things you’ve raised I want to go back to right quick. One is these leaks, the very thing that the protectors were concerned about. Indeed, the Native Americans were concerned about these leaks not just going through the native lands, but these leaks that were bound to happen.

Now what you’re telling me, and what I’ve been learning in the media, is that they’re already experiencing these leaks. That’s precisely what the issue was.

LaDuke: Right. That is exactly right. And there’s a lot of like the industry is saying pipelines are safe. They are not safe. There’s leaks every week if you look. You know this is as well as I do. The country has a D in infrastructure. You know, this country doesn’t — so you got leaky pipelines all across this country.

You know, what we need to do is clean up our old mess and not make a new mess, which is what the industry wants to do. But the pipeline has not been doing well for Energy Transfer Partners.

Tavis: The other issue you raised were these persons who had been arrested and charged…

LaDuke: That’s the water protectors, yeah.

Tavis: Charged with felonies. I want to come back to that because this is what happens when the story sort of shifts, the narrative changes, the media descends upon a particular place. Then we all scatter and leave and you have all these persons who were putting their lives on the line…

LaDuke: That’s right.

Tavis: With courage, conviction, commitment to make this the issue that it became nationally and internationally. They end up being charged with felonies and the story just kind of goes away. And what’s really important for me here is that these persons were arrested and charged under the Obama era.

So the Trump administration has continued this, but these are persons who were arrested during the Obama era. What happens to those persons who were exercising their right and ended up being arrested?

LaDuke: This is a really big problem. I mean, just to be clear, 840 people were arrested. They were stripped and cavity searched. Some of those people, as you may remember, were put in dog kennels. You know, this is not the way things are supposed to work in civil society.

And the fact is the Trump administration is trying to criminalize civil dissent and make kind of Standing Rock and North Dakota as an example. You know, what we don’t want is that example. We don’t want that to continue, and we want justice for the water protectors.

You know, I have some water protectors staying at my house, a couple of beautiful young blonde girls facing felonies. I’m like that’s not right. You don’t get to mess with those peoples’ lives because they were doing the right thing. So, you know, I’m really encouraging people to do a couple of things.

One, Honor the Earth and Freshet is actually doing legal representation for a lot of those people. They’re gonna need good lawyers, you know. But besides that, you know, if you’ve got water protectors or you know them, I’m kind of thinking like the Freedom Riders. Come back to North Dakota. Come back and join us this summer. You know, there’s trials every week.

You could show up at the Morton County Courthouse and be there with your people so that there can be some observing of this. You know, the National Jury Project did a jury pool review in the Standing Rock area and Morton County. 82% of the potential jurors felt that the water protectors were guilty. I mean, they’re still on it…

Tavis: So much for a fair trial.

LaDuke: Right. That’s exactly right. So I’m saying like we want to stand with our people. We are not leaving them, you know. My organization, Honor the Earth, is going to be there with them. You know, I got board members charged. I got family members charged. But what happened at Standing Rock, we’ve learned a lot of lessons.

The other thing I want to say, something you know, is that tens of thousands of people went to Standing Rock and, when they came out of there, they were inspired. So all across this country, there are people who are protecting their water and are fighting pipelines, which is what we’re doing at home in my territory.

Tavis: Have there been enough of these trials yet to know what kind of sentences these people are getting? These protectors are getting?

LaDuke: The felony trials have not gone ahead. These are not even 40 felonies. These are largely misdemeanors, but there’s like some serious cases there. There was a dapple security guy, Kyle Thompson, who was out there with like 30 rounds of ammunition walking into the camp.

I don’t know if you know that story, but he got disarmed. People who disarmed him were getting charged. I mean, justice in North Dakota is not coming and we’d like to have some justice. But for me, justice is not only justice in the court system, but it’s also justice for the people of Standing Rock.

Those guys got a 50-year-old clinic. You know what I’m saying? The road that they’re all fighting over doesn’t even have a shoulder on it. People freeze to death up there because they can’t pay their heating bills and their infrastructure is bad. So to me, $3.9 billion dollars, let’s see what we can do. You know, I’m really interested in infrastructure for people, not for corporations.

Tavis: If I were to ask you, Winona, to give me just a short list of issues, action items, on which the Native American community is going to grade Donald Trump — I could give you that for Black people — but if I were to ask you for that same list, what are you grading him on?

How will we know in four years — assuming he survives four years — that Donald Trump has done a good job or not so good a job by the Native American people?

LaDuke: You know, Donald Trump is kind of an Indian hater. I mean, that’s kind of been from the start. I don’t know if you remember the Donald Trump Relief Act he tried to get passed out in Connecticut to make sure that the Pequots couldn’t get a casino.

Tavis: I do, absolutely, yeah.

LaDuke: From the get-go, you know, he’s been trying to like privatize, take things from us. You know Bears Ears National Monument, direct hit at that. You know, first tribal national monument in the country. He wanted to take that down. Pipelines, you know, he’s approving pipelines willy-nilly.

You know, what we would like is some justice to hold onto our lands and territories, protect our environment, ensure that our school lunch program — my grandkids, even when the schools on school lunch, you cut that program, how are those kids going to eat, you know?

There’s a lot of things like that. I don’t know how I’m going to judge the guy. I’m having a lot of trouble figuring out if he’s in school, you know [laugh].

Tavis: I take your point. Tell me more about this documentary. We showed a clip of it early on, but tell me what you hope to get across by giving us a deep drill-down into these companies that are behind these pipelines.

LaDuke: So I just want to say, you know, for those watching and for you, Tavis. We beat a pipeline last year. That was called the Sandpiper. Enbridge, largest pipeline company in North America, came in with a proposal. This film, “First Daughter and the Black Snake”, premiering now at film festivals around the country, is about that battle, and it was a four-year battle.

Every year we prayed, we rode our horses, we had our ceremonies and we went to every regulatory hearing and lawsuits were filed. As a result of that, we defeated a 640,000 barreladay pipeline coming out of North Dakota. Gets kind of confusing, but what I’m saying is that’s what we defeated, called the Sandpiper.

So what I want to say first is that you can stop something. People could win over corporations, but you got to be really, really persistent and you got to pray. You got to work hard, you got to know your terrain. Now we’re some common people, but we fought these guys when no one said we could.

But then what I want to say is that we’re still facing the same thing. Because, you know, after this victory for us, they came back with another pipeline. It’s called Line 3, single largest tar sands pipeline will be coming in 915,000 barrels a day, same route. So I’m going back home to fight round two…

Tavis: The same fight, yeah.

LaDuke: The same damn corporation. Like what I want to say is like there’s a lot of corporations that like to talk about how much we need them. But what I want to say is, look, between Trudeau, the good guy up in Canada, you know, Justin Trudeau, and Mr. Willy-Nilly out there, Donald Trump, they approve all these pipelines.

Like here, we just give this one approval, this one approval, this one approval. And the fact is that they have approved more pipelines than there is oil. It’s the same thing in North Dakota. They approve more pipelines than there is oil.

So Toronto Globe and Mail, big paper up there, reports that between approving the Keystone XL permits to go ahead, the Enbridge Line 3, the Trans Mountain and one called Energy East in Canada, Trudeau and Mr. Trump approved 2.4 million barrels a day more than needed for pipelines.

And there’s no guarantee there’s going to be oil coming out of the tar sands in 10 years. One, because the price of oil is low. You know what I’m saying? Saudi Arabia? And, two, because it’s just dirty damn oil…

Tavis: Why would you approve — pardon my naivety — but why would you approve more pipeline than you have oil? That’s like beyond greed to me.

LaDuke: It is beyond greed.

Tavis: Beyond? I don’t know what the word for it is, but I don’t quite…

LaDuke: It’s beyond greed and bad math, you know, and absolutely no context. So what we’re saying is, it’s like, you know, what you need to do, America, is clean up your mess. Because right now, you know, they’re saying like maybe 15% or 25% of the oil that we’re already getting in here in these pipelines, we’re wasting it. You know what I’m saying?

It’s blowing off in these different places. What we need to do is clean up our pipelines that are already here and not start abandoning them and not build any new ones. Like I told you the math of North Dakota?

Like if you really want energy self-sufficiency, you need to be like Germany. Last weekend, Germany produced 85% of its power from renewable energy. So I’m like, what’s up, America? What’s up with that? How come we’re sitting here and we’re like arguing about stupid pipelines when we could be like cool, moving ahead?

Tavis: Thought you’d appreciate an update on Standing Rock and all these other pipelines that, apparently, we don’t need, courtesy of Winona LaDuke. Her new book is called “The Winona LaDuke Chronicles: Stories From the Front Lines in the Battle for Environmental Justice”. Winona, thank you for your service, for your sacrifice. Good to have you on this program.

LaDuke: Thank you.

Tavis: Coming up next, singer Faith Evans. Stay with us.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: June 9, 2017 at 2:42 pm