The Wealth of Nations

Winona LaDuke's new book unflinchingly describes how traditional Native American lands appropriated by white settlers often formed the foundations for huge monolithic corporations, such as Weyerhaeuser.

| Thu Dec. 23, 1999 4:00 AM EST

Where does the vast wealth of the United States come from? It is hard to read the financial and popular press today without encountering stories that suggest the answer is the creativity of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

To this prevailing, romanticized perspective, Winona LaDuke offers a jolt of reality: Many of the great US fortunes are based on somebody else's wealth -- the natural resources of Native Americans.

In her eloquent new book, "All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life" (Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press), LaDuke documents the historic -- and ongoing -- process of Native American dispossession.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

LaDuke, a member of the Anishinaabeg nation, lives on the White Earth Reservation, in northern Minnesota. She describes how a series of treaties and US laws transferred land from the Anishinaabeg to incoming settlers and converted commonly held Anishinaabeg land into individual parcels, with much of it soon alienated from the Anishinaabeg (and a huge chunk taken by the state of Minnesota, illegally, for taxes).

The big winners in the process were Frederick Weyerhaeuser and the company he created. "Some are made rich and some are made poor," LaDuke writes. "In 1895, White Earth 'neighbor' Frederick Weyerhaeuser owned more acres of timber than anyone else in the world." Today, descendant companies of Weyerhaeuser continue to clearcut what remains of the Minnesota pine forests.

In upstate New York and Canada, the Mohawk nation retains land in scattered reservations -- a tiny fraction of their former possessions. The Akwesasne Mohawk Reserve borders the St. Lawrence River. Families that once relied on fishing and farming have been forced, she writes, to abandon their livelihoods because the river is so polluted with PCBs dumped by General Motors and air pollution depositions have poisoned the land.

"Many of the families used to eat 20-25 fish meals a month," LaDuke quotes an Akwesasne environmental expert as saying. "It's now said that the traditional Mohawk diet is spaghetti."

"All Our Relations" features another half dozen case studies of corporate and governmental assaults on Native American land and livelihoods.

Dispossession of Native American lands has led to what LaDuke calls "structural poverty." Structural poverty, she told us, "ensues when you do not have control over the land or any of your assets."

"It is not a question of material wealth, but having conditions of human dignity within the reservation," she says, citing a litany of devastating statistics on Native American poverty rates, crime rates and access to health care. "You can throw whatever social program you want at this, but until we are allowed to determine our own destiny, these are the problems we are going to face."

Dispossession has inflicted on Native Americans an intertwined spiritual poverty as well, she says. "You have some [Native Americans] whose whole way of life are based on buffalo, but we have no buffalo. This loss causes a kind of grieving in our community."

But LaDuke's "All Our Relations" is as much a hopeful as depressing book. She chronicles Native American resistance to incursions from multinational corporations, government agencies which frequently act to further corporate interests and a white-dominated society which too often maintains a settler mentality.

She profiles women like Gail Small, "the kind of woman you'd want to watch your back at a meeting with dubious characters." An attorney, Small runs a group called Native Action, which has led the strikingly successful fight against coal company strip mining on the Northern Cheyenne and other Montana reservations. Native Action has also pushed for affirmative development proposals, forcing the First Interstate Bank System to provide loans to Northern Cheyennes through use of the Community Reinvestment Act and helping establish a Northern Cheyenne high school. LaDuke herself is an inspiring figure, working with her White Earth Land Recovery Project not only to pressure states and the federal government to return Native American lands (which because they are government held, would not require the displacement of any individual property holders), but also trying to enact a sustainable forest management plan for White Earth, supporting the development of wind power on the reservation and establishing a project, Native Harvest, to "restore traditional foods and capture a fair market price for traditionally and organically grown foods" such as wild hominy corn, organic raspberries, wild rice, buffalo sausage, and maple syrup.

"All Our Relations" is a wonderful read, and an important book -- both for telling a story of plunder and exploitation too often forgotten, and because, as LaDuke notes, "this whole discussion is really not about the Seminoles and the panther" or other particular problems facing particular groups of Native Americans -- "it is really about America."

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of "Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy."

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.