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By Patrick Howe
August 29, 2000
WHITE EARTH INDIAN RESERVATION, Minn. (AP) - While sweeping the floors in her remote log home, Winona LaDuke stops, jabs her finger in the air and proclaims: "I'll definitely do a housecleaning when I get to Washington."
Then Ralph Nader's vice presidential running mate breaks into laughter at her declaration. Sound bites just aren't her style.
An author, activist and farmer, LaDuke lives in a lakeside home on a dead-end gravel road in a part of northwest Minnesota where the prairie gives way to the north woods.
The Ojibwe woman also ran with Nader in 1996. The two Harvard graduates spent mere thousands and received 1 percent of the vote.
This time, they will be on the ballot in at least 45 states. They're aiming to spend millions and are talking about winning.
To those who say victory is impossible, LaDuke points to the win by another unlikely politician from her home state: former professional wrestler, now Gov. Jesse Ventura.
The Nader-LaDuke campaign has been drawing support of up to 6 percent in some national polls. In California, Nader's support was as high as 8 percent earlier this month, before dropping to 4 percent in the most recent Field Poll.
David Gillespie, professor at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., and an expert on third-party politics, says LaDuke complements the background of Nader, the famous consumer advocate.
"He needed a person who represented a more multicultural perspective," Gillespie says.
LaDuke, 41, says she is campaigning to help the poor and protect the environment. She wants to see a constitutional amendment, based on Indian tradition, that would require all governmental decisions to be examined with regard to their impact on people seven generations in the future.
She plans to campaign at least part of every week. But when she's on reservations, she will be making a soft sell.
American Indians vote at rates lower than their roughly 2 percent share of the general population. Some view voting as a sign of acceptance of federal authority over sovereign tribes. It's a view her own husband, a leader of a Michigan tribe, shares.
LaDuke's life and career are rooted in American Indian concerns and she's blunt about the problems facing her community. "Every social and economic statistic you don't want to have, we have," she laments.
But she also hopes her effort will not be seen only as a "racially based ethnic campaign."
She was born in Los Angeles to a Jewish mother and an American Indian father. Her grandmother was an early union organizer.
She grew up in Ashland, Ore., where she placed second in the state as a high school debater. At 18, she made a presentation before the United Nations on U.S. energy policy and Indian lands. After working on causes on other reservations, she came to White Earth, home to her own family's tribe, in 1981.
She took a job as principal at a tribal high school and quickly became involved in a lawsuit to recover lands taken from the tribe by the federal government and the logging industry. White Earth is larger than Rhode Island, but the tribe owns less than 10 percent of the reservation land.
After losing the suit, LaDuke founded the nonprofit White Earth Land Recovery Project, which has so far repurchased 1,300 acres of the reservation.
LaDuke says she is "not inclined" toward electoral politics and hasn't run for any elected offices other than the vice presidency. Still, she has shown a willingness to play the game. When Dan Quayle had trouble spelling potato in 1992, LaDuke made speeches in which she spelled it for him -- in Ojibwe.
Audrey Thayer, a political supporter and a member of the same religious lodge, says LaDuke is skilled at communicating American Indian themes and concerns to nonnative audiences.
"She blossoms in the public eye," says Thayer. "She's got that bicultural skill, which is rare in Indian country."
American Indians have held few national elective posts, but there is precedent for LaDuke's ambitions. Charles Curtis, a vice president under Herbert Hoover, was Kaw Indian.
LaDuke describes herself as a "mother-of-three, parent-of-many" and questions how "men of privilege" can be expected to rule judiciously. She argues "there is no real quality of life in America until there is quality of life in the poorest regions of America."
Can she and Nader win? Gillespie says no, but adds that the ticket is positioned to tap into a large body of voters looking for an alternative to the two main parties. Says Gillespie: "The Nader ticket, far more than the Reform Party, is certainly the game in town to watch this year."
LaDuke says she and Nader will win "if the largest faction of this election -- those who don't usually vote -- vote for us."