Recovering the Sacred by Winona LaDuke

published by South End Press, 2005

If the only way you have heard of Winona LaDuke was through her run for the Vice Presidency on the Nader ticket in 1996 and 2000, pick up this book right away. In fact, I will forgive you if you drift off of my blog completely to run out (or click out) and buy it right now.

Recovering the Sacred is a collection of narratives about various instances when Native Americans have reclaimed traditional lands, practices, and perhaps more importantly, food. LaDuke, a member of the Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe), is involved in The White Earth Land Recovery Project, a Minnesota project involving Native Americans recovering traditional food production. She was the first, and remains the only, activist/radical politician that I have seen on the Food Network, where she appeared to discuss Ojibwe practice of harvesting wild rice.

Like anyone else who recently went to graduate school for literature, I have read my fair share of activist writing of all stripes, usually pedantic and academic crap that takes a subject matter of great interest and importance and sucks all the life right out of it. However, what struck me the most about Recovering the Sacred was the incredible tone and the craft of writing displayed here. There are a lot of writer-activists out there who are much better activists than they are writers, but in LaDuke manages to both amuse and engender a passionate response both by how she writes as well as the subject matter.

LaDuke uses a dry humor throughout the book as she picks apart the arguments of those who oppose Native Americans' efforts, as when in response to a Vatican Observatory pronouncement (about Native opposition to a large observatory being built on sacred land in Arizona) that they "would like to learn about any such genuine concerns of authentic Apaches" she grabs you with a little mockery, opining, "Ah, the problem of finding 'authentic' Indians," and then follows it up with cold hard facts: "Not that anyone looked very hard. No formal attempts were made to meet with the Apache until four years after the project was had been proposed." Even her subject headings are kind of cute: "Raising Arizona;" in an entry about mining, "Sucking the Mother Dry;" or invoking the aura of classic Western movies, "A River Runs Through It."

So you're drawn in a little by the humor and the clear prose, but what keeps you are the stories. When reading a lot of Native non-fiction, or just thinking about the history of Native Americans, one can easily be left with a sense of hopelessness. But here, LaDuke deals out hope. Each well-crafted, well-researched story is one of Native peoples reclaiming something sacred they have lost, small victories acheived through peaceful, legal means -- quite differently than the way they lost it. It's good writing about activism at its best and most productive.

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