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Winona LaDuke Pledges Help for Native Tribes Drowning in BP Oil

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Georgianne Nienaber     Permalink
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The meeting with Phillipe unfolded at the urging of Sister Helen Vinton of the Southern Mutual Help Association. SMHA is working closely with Louisiana's fishers to help them "survive the unprecedented doom they are facing in the wake of the current oil spill."

While expertly maneuvering her boat past luxuriant green grasses, yet untouched by the crude that had ruined Cat, Grand Terre and Queen Bess Islands and the pelican rookeries once sheltered there, Philippe spoke of community meetings held in the local parishes. By and large, these meetings with officials had proven to be a big disappointment. "We are a subsistent people and we need information. How can we plan for the next step without information?" She knew the answer, but presented the question as an existential argument. "The People are facing a new threat," the village needed the truth, and "the truth is in very short supply right now because so many people are looking out for their own interests. We cannot continue on with our lives until we get that information." Philippe likened the quest for truth about the chemicals in the Gulf waters to the proverbial attempt to "squeeze water from a rock."

At the northern end of the Mississippi, LaDuke is struggling to squeeze wind energy from a wind turbine project that recalcitrant officials and local utility inspectors want to stop, or at the very least are not supporting. The turbine, a Loland 75 kilowatt, is standing tall and ready in Callaway, Minnesota, with all 84 feet and 13,000 pounds of nacelle poised to power the community. But LaDuke says her organization is being forced to pay an interconnect fee that will upgrade the entire city of Callaway, which also happens to be the windiest city on the reservation.

The "Great Wind" is a constant in the lives of the Anishinaabeg people, and the revered "Ningaabii'anong Noodin" (West Wind) is a part of ancient tribal history. The wind turbine project had its genesis through the White Earth Land Recovery Project and Honor the Earth. This alternative energy project is an attempt to break free of the stranglehold that polluting industrial projects have on the north country.

Winona LaDuke at White Earth Reservation

LaDuke talked about the mercury and heavy metal levels in once pristine reservation lakes that now have fish consumption advisories. Coal fired plants and incinerators are the sources of the contamination. "We are fully aware of the impact of coal-fired power plants on our lakes," she said, speaking passionately about native peoples, "our relatives," who are being directly impacted by the "addiction" for oil. "It's an addiction, and addicts tend to hang out with the suppliers of the drug." In this case LaDuke meant the oil and coal companies.

I was immediately struck with a memory that Phillipe had used the same analogy during our visit on Grand Bayou:

What powerful nation puts its national security in the hands of a non-renewable resource? How sad is it that our nation has no vision? If ever there was a time for people to see that we need to diversify, that we need to make some changes, not only to strengthen our energy policies but also to take care of everything that lives here with us on this planet. The time is now. We can't have our security and our lives dependent upon oil and gas. It is not dependence really, it is an addiction, and industry keeps feeding that addiction. It is almost as if the very thing that is destroying us is the very thing they keep pushing at us.

LaDuke shares much of the the frustrations experienced by Philippe.

LaDuke slammed the Minnesota Ottertail Power Company for being "punitive" in its refusal to allow the White Earth Recovery Project to supply its own power and have some to sell to the rest of the grid. Minnesota has the strictest electrical inspection standards in the United States. The Callaway turbine has passed all environmental and electrical inspections with flying colors, yet it is being blocked. Everything about the Callaway turbine is replicable for other communities, but LaDuke feels the regulations "are changed behind closed doors."

The endless hoops we are forced to jump through are difficult and illustrate a less than willing and supportive interest by a large coal-fueled utility. The end result is that our organization (WELRP) is being forced to upgrade a utiility that has made a good deal of money from inefficient technologies.

The bottom line is that Minnesota State and Department of Energy regulators have given the green light to power up the turbine, but Ottertail and its investors are dragging their feet. It is a blow to the project because since 2009 there has been an interconnect plan with Otter Tail Power to hook into the power grid and sell the energy WELRP generates back to the company via a power purchase agreement. Now, Ottertail can't or doesn't want to pay for the "smart grid" technology when the cheaper oil and coal technology is in place.

In a terrible disconnect, a third of the Native people on the Great Plains live in sub-standard housing and rotting trailers. "The irony is that these same Great Plains tribes have some of the greatest wind resources in the world. Tribes have the potential to provide almost 15 percent of the country's electricity with wind power, and have 4.5 times the solar resources to power the entire U.S.," LaDuke said in a letter to members of Honor the Earth.

I look at my own reservation the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota - on my reservation, one quarter of our money is spent on energy. All of that money basically goes to off reservation vendors whether it is for electricity or whether it is for fuel. You know a quarter of our income is a substantial economy for our reservation and for any reservation. And so our strategy is to replicate what we are doing in White Earth, you know, nationally, and say instead of outsourcing, we can re-localize a good portion of our energy economy.

When I visited with Philippe, she had just returned from the waters of Jimmy Bay and an encounter with the thick mats of red slime and crude that we had witnessed plastered up against life-giving grasses of the estuary in Barataria Bay several days earlier. We went past houses that were destroyed in Katrina five years ago. The parallel is obvious.

Katrina Damage In Grand Bayou Village (2010)

"It's not just marsh grasses that are being affected. The marsh is home to so many different animals and birds and marine life. It is our nursery and it is our rookery. It shelters the plants that we eat and our medicine plants-- it is all being destroyed right now because of what keeps rolling in 53 days after the explosion. It is still coming into the coast," Philippe said. And, as a subsistence people, the Village at grand Bayou is totally dependent upon the water for their livelihoods--water that is choked with oil.

Philippe with mason jar of BP oil

Is there any hope?

While at White Earth, LaDuke offered hope in the guise of a prophecy.

"Ojibwe prophecy speaks of a time during the seventh fire when our people will have a choice between two paths. The first path is well-worn and scorched. The second path is new and green. It is our choice as communities and as individuals how we will proceed."

But, will the northern power companies allow White Earth to proceed?

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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota, New Orleans and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill (more...)

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