This essay is part of our July 2019 Uncertain Future Forum on the topic: “If collapse is imminent, how do we respond?” We invite you to comment below, and to read the other essays here.


Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke

In the time of the Seventh Fire, the Anishinaabe were told, we will have a choice between two paths: one well-worn, but scorched; and a second that’s not well-worn, but green. We are instructed to make a choice. For those of us who choose the Green Path, there is another fire– it’s called the Eighth Fire. … Light the fire, I say.

There’s no question that the Wiindigo (a cannibal spirit which stalks the North Country), or what I refer to as Wiindigo Economics, has scorched the earth– that’s the path of fossil fuels, war, capitalism, greed and irresponsibility. We see that. Indigenous people have seen that for five hundred years. In fact, we have lived in a post-apocalyptic world. That’s our lot.

We remember our people– 90% of them perished from biological weaponry of smallpox blankets. We remember them. We remember when America was great– there were 50 million buffalo, passenger pigeons blackened the skies, and there was fresh water, water you could drink everywhere. We remember the forests, the plants, the rivers, and the sacred places. We feel sorrow, traumatic shock, not even post-traumatic stress disorder; ongoing stress. We live it. We experience the amnesia, historic and ecological, and we remain. We are survivors. We remain grateful, seek to keep our covenant with the Creator and our relatives whether they have paws, roots, hooves, fins, or wings. We remember them in our clans, our ceremonies, our instructions, and seeds.

What I notice more than anything is that the birds and insects are gone. I know that’s the beginning. I also know that I live where the wild things are– there are still frogs, birds, wolves, deer. Anything which is endemic seems to be stable, anything which moves is perishing. That makes sense, because about 80% of the remaining biodiversity in the world is in Indigenous territories. Simply stated, if we want to keep our memories and keep life, we will need to protect those relatives. And we will need to plant. Seeds are promise, they are hope.

A Graceful Transition and the Sitting Bull Plan

Let us put our minds together to see what kind of future we can make for our children…
– Sitting Bull

I have been wanting a graceful transition from the fossil fuels era. That means: having a plan or two, getting things in order for the transition, weaning myself from my addictions, and relocalizing. I call this “from a tipi to a Tesla.” That’s basically what I want to see good technology. In public policy this is posited as the Green New Deal agenda, but I’d go further, and call it the Sitting Bull Plan– it needs to be broad, bigger than the U.S., and have the depth of Indigenous knowledge. Here are some elements.

Where the Wild Things Are

That’s Indigenous peoples. On a worldwide scale, over 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is in Indigenous territories. We live where there are wolves, bears, buffalo, sturgeon, geese, eagles, and salmon. We live in the Amazon, in the places where the “uncontacted people” remain, in a world with the animals. Our lands also retain agro-biodiversity of thousands of seeds grown for a millennium, and the grasses and forests to support life. Our territories contain sacred places and sacred landscapes, all of which are the places where we are able to reaffirm and recharge our relationship with Mother Earth. Stand with these people. Because there is life where we live.

Water Protector

Be a Water Protector. Worldwide, water is under great threat, and many go without. The term Water Protector was mainstreamed under a hail of water cannons and tear gas at Standing Rock, but people have been working to protect ground water and surface water for decades. That’s water not only humans drink but all the other relatives, whether they have wings, or fins, or roots, or paws. I often muse that Water Protectors should replace the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts as youth civic organizations. Everyone should be a Water Protector.

Cut Our Consumption

We can make a legislative agenda for renewable energy and jobs, but we need to cut our consumption. Time to starve the Wiindigo, and time to figure out how to survive. Honestly, that’s not so hard. Think about this: In the U.S. economy, some 66% of energy is “rejected” in the system between point of production and point of consumption, with the two largest sectors of waste found in the transportation and industrial sectors. It’s time for negawatts.

And then there’s failing infrastructure. Consider the leaking gas mains of Boston, the aging powerlines of Pacific Gas & Electric which brought us the Camp Fire inferno in California. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the United States has a “D” in infrastructure, whether water or electrical. And that’s a huge waste. No time like the present to get the bridges refurbished, put some people to work fixing messes, not making new messes. Efficiency creates 21.5 jobs for every $1 million invested.

Energy Justice

Indigenous lands have provided a huge amount of energy to the U.S. and Canadian economies over the past hundred years, and the toll on Indigenous peoples has been devastating. Almost every mega-dam has flooded our best lands, our heartlands, changing how we relate to water. Those dams—from James Bay and the Churchill River in Canada to the Columbia River Basin and Leech Lake in the United States—have destroyed our territories and flooded our history. Two thirds of the uranium, one third of all western coal, the tar sands– they all lay to waste vast Indigenous territories. Energy justice means that we are at the center of the next energy economy, but in different terms. Consider this: Nationally, tribal lands have an estimated 535 Billion kWh/year of wind power generation potential, and an estimated 17,000 Billion kWh/year of solar electricity generation potential– about 4.5 times total U.S. annual generation.

If fossil fuels pipelines like the Dakota Access, Keystone, and Line 3 are about “energy security,” how about we put our money where our mouth is? The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.9 billion clusterfuck; Enbridge’s Line 3 project is an even worse hemorrhage at $7 billion. That money could buy you a pipeline for a Canadian corporation to get some filthy tar sands oil to market and bake the planet– or you could erect 580 two-megawatt wind turbines, install 716,000 five-kilowatt systems on that many homes, and retrofit another 283,000 homes for efficiency. That’s energy security.

Getting local on energy—from micro grids to solar gardens—brings the economic benefit of energy projects back to the community. Each megawatt of installed community solar generates $l.87 million of total economic impact during construction operation  and maintenance.

Gluttons are We

How baffling is it that we waste 40% of our food in America? Not only do we move it 1,400 miles from farmer to table, on average, but we slather it full of fossil fuels all the way through (from everything ending with “-cide” that we put on it; pesticides, fungicides herbicides– all using the same suffix as homicide, suicide, and genocide). Add to that the packaging of food, and it’s obvious we are choking ourselves on oil. Time for a diet.

Eat Well, Local and Organic

Organic agriculture sequesters carbon and rebuilds topsoil. Organic agriculture on a worldwide scale could sequester up to a quarter of the carbon. It’s estimated that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, more than a quarter of all carbon added to the atmosphere has come from plowing, which speeds up the decomposition of the soil organic matter and exposes soil to wind and rain (thereby increasing erosion).

Major corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta talk about “climate smart” crop varieties they are introducing. They are spending billions of dollars on this: $136 million is the average amount to develop climate smart seeds per species. In the meantime, Indigenous nations worldwide are adapting our pre-petroleum varieties to the times ahead. Combined, Indigenous farmers are producing today 70% of the world’s food. Might want to stick with the ancient, time-tested wisdom of food.

The Creator’s Law and the Law of Men

On December 31, 2018, the White Earth Anishinaabe recognized the Rights of Manoomin, or Wild Rice, following an international tradition recognizing the Rights of Nature. Bolivia was among the first countries to enshrine those rights into their constitution, and it should be noted that their President, Evo Morales, is himself Indigenous. We must clearly transform our legal institutions so that they reflect survival. The regulatory systems have been hijacked by corporate profiteers. The rights of Mother Earth must supersede the rights of corporations.

Noongom (Today)

None of us are sure how the next thirty years will go, but we are sure that they will be full of sorrow, fear, and also joy. I’ve always refused to watch “The Walking Dead” on TV, because that is not my world– my world, transformed and reborn, is ahead. Each economic sector of this country (or of North America for those of us who do not believe in invisible borders created by colonial powers) can be transformed.

I once sat in Sitka, Alaska, and watched a cruise ship turn a 180 on a dime. No kidding. That’s what we need to do. That’s why you need a Green New Deal, a new Marshall Plan– or, the Sitting Bull Plan. Canada’s version is called the LEAP Manifesto and has elements similar to the Green New Deal, although I might call it the Poundmaker Manifesto– in honor of political and spiritual leaders who have not been recognized by Canada (like Pitikwahanapiwiyin, leader of the Poundmaker Cree Nation).

It’s time for an Indigenous paradigm, and a restorative economy. Gross National Product is not Gross National Happiness– not at the present or intergenerationally. It is clearly time to think intergenerationally and about justice and peace. This is between ourselves and our relatives and our Mother Earth. Our prophecies and instructions give some clear guidance on restoration of that covenant. Now is the time. Light the Fire.

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Winona LaDuke is a rural development economist working on issues of economic, food, and energy sovereignty. She lives and works on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, and leads several organizations including Honor the Earth, Anishinaabe Agriculture Institute, Akiing, and Winona’s Hemp. These organizations develop and model cultural-based sustainable development strategies utilizing renewable energy and sustainable food systems. She is an international thought leader in the areas of climate justice, renewable energy, and environmental justice. She is also a leader in the work of  protecting Indigenous plants and heritage foods from patenting and genetic engineering. She has authored six books including; Recovering the Sacred, All our Relations, Last Standing Woman, and her newest work, The Winona LaDuke Chronicles.