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Winona LaDuke is an internationally renowned activist working on issues of sustainable development, renewable energy, and food systems. She gave this address at the Slow Food USA national meeting at Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, September 22, 2016.

I just came from the center of agrobiodiversity of the northern plains, the Missouri River Basin, where at one point there were 215 species of grass and 500 million buffalo. I came from a place where, for thousands of years, people have grown many varieties of food essential to North America and the world. Corn, beans, squash, melons, tobacco—all indigenous foods of North America.

I came from a place where people have struggled for a long time. I do not mean to give you a history lesson, but knowing that you are Americans, you’ve had a poor one in general. A smallpox epidemic wiped out most of the people of that territory, followed by militarization and forces that massacred so many. Then the big dam projects came in and flooded every reservation along the Missouri river, wiping out the places where people grew their food. On one reservation, Standing Rock, 200,000 thousand acres of land were taken.

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That is what colonization looks like in North America. Today, we largely have GMO crops owned by one or two large corporations, a massive amount of fracking in the Bakken oil fields, and a showdown occurring with indigenous people. It is a choice between water and oil.

We spent the last four years fighting a set of large oil pipelines. You may not think that is related to food, but those pipelines would have gone right through the heart of our wild rice territory. So my people, with a lot of allies in the region—but not a lot of help from people around the country, because they weren’t looking—fought for four years. In August, they canceled the pipeline.

Now if anybody knows me, you know I’d rather grow cool corn and hang out with my horses then spend my time on pipelines, but the fact is, that in this day and age, you have to defend what is of value to you. You cannot sit passively on the side and hope someone else is going to take care of it for you, because that is not going to happen. You have to stand there and put everything at stake, put yourself on the front lines.

By doing that, we beat the Enbridge Company. They were exhausted, but then they went to North Dakota and bought the Dakota Access pipeline. So that is how I went back to the Northern Plains territory. Most of you have flown over North Dakota and South Dakota many times, looked down, and said, “Oh look, there’s North Dakota. That’s where Fargo is.” But a battle is raging there. In order to stop 570,000 barrels of oil coming across that territory every day, we must hold our ground until November, when the ground will be too cold for them to dig.

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We are hungry up there, but people like you have sent us food. Three hundred tribes have come, churches have come, cool people have come, cool people who can cook have come. Just as I was leaving and they were a little short on meat, a reservation showed up with four buffalo. If you want to see Slow Food in action, watch thirty Indians butcher a buffalo. That’s pretty cool. It’s old school stuff.

I know you are good people, and I also know that many of you are very privileged. In that privilege, many of you know more about varieties of beans and varieties of apples than you could name indigenous people in North America. There is this huge disconnect in your history, up until today. Do you know who we are? Where we come from? And why presidia in North America are in fact our foods? The sacred Anishinaabeg Manoomin wild rice, the Navajo-Churro sheep, and the Makah Ozette potato all come from us.

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I first met Slow Food in 2003 when The White Earth Land Recovery Project was awarded the International Slow Food Award for Biodiversity, because we had protected wild rice from genetic engineering. We came to this movement and found a home with indigenous farmers and harvesters from other parts of the world. I felt so much resonance and beauty. We have a strong indigenous delegation here today, the Turtle Island Association. Turtle Island is our creation story, where North America is the back of a turtle. (You know, it had a name before it was the United States.) I have been part of the Slow Food movement for 13 years, standing strong on it and really encouraged by the people here.

We are reaching out to you as sisters, as relatives, as partners, to ask you to not only acknowledge us, but to understand the difference. Food is an excellent opportunity to de-colonize yourself, to go back and figure out the origins. This movement is about justice; about the future of how we will eat, how we will treat other, and how we will live.

I ask you, do not forget us. Don’t forget what is going on in those places you never look. In Standing Rock today, people who are the most oppressed are standing up to the biggest oil companies and biggest businesses in the world. They are saying, we’re done. We are not going to just stand here. We are going to rebuild our earth lodges here, we are going to bring back our foods here, and we are going to figure out how to do some cool stuff so we can grow all our crops here. You companies will not make this future for us. We will do it.

In our teachings, we have a prophecy called “the time of the seventh fire.” It says we the Anishinaabe people will have a choice between two paths. One is well worn, but it is scorched. The other path is not well worn, but it is green. The time to choose our path is now. It is the choice that is upon all of us. It is a choice between life and death, a choice between oil and water, a choice for our food and our future.
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Transcribed by Katherine Hernandez. Photo of Navajo Churro Sheep by Michael Benanav.