Leah Penniman saw in the history of Black farming cooperatives a way for Americans of color to re-establish a connection with the land and rebuild a culture disrupted by the systematic exclusion from land ownership.
She turned to the story of the emergence of the community land trust movement out of the civil rights movement in Albany, Georgia in 1967. She studied the agricultural innovations of George Washington Carver, a leading agricultural scientist concerned with soil depletion and as a result, she embraced natural farming methods. She read works by W. E. B. Du Bois, founder of the N.A.A.C.P., pointing to the economic strength of Blacks working cooperatively. She was inspired by Labor Union leader, Fannie Lou Hamer who started “Freedom Farm” a Black cooperative in the Mississippi Delta and who famously said “When you’ve got 400 quarts of greens and gumbo soup for the winter, nobody can push you around or tell you what to say or do.”
If we fail to know our history, then we’re a rootless tree and a rootless tree cannot survive. So we’re going back in our history in order to talk about what we’re doing to further Black agrarianism, to further new economies for Black and Brown people. We really need to understand that the food system isn’t broken. It’s designed and working exactly as it was intended. It was built on stolen land and it was built with stolen labor and that continues today in an unbroken chain that started in 1455.
She and her husband established Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NY as a training center to introduce young people of color to farming. For Leah, farming is a political act. It is at the same time an act of joy. And it is an act of service. Much of the produce is distributed to families in the nearby city of Troy. Families who pay only what they can. In Leah’s mind, healthy food should be a right, not dependent on income.
Seeds are blessed when planted. Ancestors are remembered. Moon and sun, water and earth are all part of the ritual of farming taught at Soul Fire Farm. Leah envisions a repopulating of rural areas by people of color farming cooperatively, building soil and culture and community. Her vision is compelling, even intoxicating.
Winona LaDuke is an activist, community economist, author and member of the Anishinaabeg peoples. She is an advocate for community land stewardship, local food sovereignty, and regenerative resource use. Her advocacy is persuasive in part because of her ability to communicate stories and ideas of the Anishinaabeg peoples in ways that are both timely and relevant.
She understands that the language surrounding land, resource use, and farming affects how we take care of those things in a very profound way.
According to our way of living and our way of looking at the world, most of the world is animate. This is reflected in our language, Anishinabemowin, in which most nouns are animate. Mandamin, the word for corn is animate; mitig, the word for tree, is animate; so is the word for rice, manomin, and the word for rock or stone, asin.
When it comes to the concepts of land ownership and usage, language is even more crucial. “In our language the words Anishinaabeg akiing describe the concept of land ownership. They translate as ‘the land of the people,‘ which doesn’t imply that we own our land but that we belong on it.”
Speaking on food sovereignty, LaDuke said that for many indigenous peoples around the world, food crops are understood to be their relatives. The indigenous people on the Big Island of Hawaii “consider that the taro was their older brother, and so it is not surprising that they, like the Ojibwe people, fought the genetic engineering of our wild rice.” And they won.
A powerful speaker, a natural leader, Winona LaDuke inspires others to take action to address centuries of injustice to indigenous peoples.
In celebration of 40 years of the Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, and in anticipation of the October 25, 2020 Lectures with Kali Akuno and George Monbiot, we are highlighting the work of past speakers, asking for updates of their earlier remarks, and inviting them to reflect on current conditions.
On Thursday, October 8 at 2pm Eastern, Winona LaDuke and Leah Penniman will engage in a live, virtual conversation on Zoom, moderated by Jodie Evans. They will reflect on their original talks given current political, economic, and social realities and will then comment on each other’s work. Registration is free. A question and answer period will follow initial presentations. If you are unable to attend, a recording of the event will be available.
About our speakers:
Winona LaDuke—an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) member of the White Earth Nation—is an environmentalist, economist, author, and prominent Native American activist working to restore and preserve indigenous cultures and lands.
She graduated from Harvard University in 1982 with a B.A. in economics (rural economic development) and from Antioch University with an M.A. in community economic development. While at Harvard, she came to understand that the problems besetting native nations were the result of centuries of governmental exploitation. At age 18 she became the youngest person to speak to the United Nations about Native American issues.
In 1989 LaDuke founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project in Minnesota, focusing on the recovery, preservation, and restoration of land on the White Earth Reservation. This includes branding traditional foods through the Native Harvest label.
In 1993 LaDuke gave the Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture entitled “Voices from White Earth.” That same year she co-founded and is executive director of Honor the Earth, whose goal is to support Native environmental issues and to ensure the survival of sustainable Native communities. As executive director she travels nationally and internationally to work with Indigenous communities on climate justice, renewable energy, sustainable development, food sovereignty, environmental justice, and human rights.
Among the books she has authored are All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (1999, 2016); The Winona LaDuke Reader: A Collection of Essential Writings (2002); Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming (2005); The Militarization of Indian Country (2013).
LaDuke’s many honors include nomination in 1994 by Time magazine as one of America’s 50 most promising leaders under 40; the Thomas Merton Award in 1996, the Ann Bancroft Award for Women’s Leadership in 1997, and the Reebok Human Rights Award in 1998. In 1998 Ms. Magazine named her Woman of the Year for her work with Honor the Earth. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2007, and in 2017 she received the Alice and Clifford Spendlove Prize in Social Justice, Diplomacy, and Tolerance.
Winona LaDuke was an active leader as a Water Protector with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2017 at Standing Rock, where the Sioux Nation and hundreds of their supporters fought to preserve the Nation’s drinking water and sacred lands from the damage the pipeline would cause. Over the years her activism has not deviated from seeking justice and restoration for Indigenous peoples.
Leah Penniman is an educator, farmer/peyizan, author, and food justice activist from Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NY. She co-founded Soul Fire Farm in 2011 with the mission to end racism in the food system and reclaim our ancestral connection to land. Penniman is part of a team that facilitates powerful food sovereignty programs – including farmer trainings for Black & Brown people, a subsidized farm food distribution program for people living under food apartheid, and domestic and international organizing toward equity in the food system.
Penniman holds an MA in Science Education and BA in Environmental Science and International Development from Clark University. She has been farming since 1996 and teaching since 2002. The work of Penniman and Soul Fire Farm has been recognized by the Soros Racial Justice Fellowship, Fulbright Program, Omega Sustainability Leadership Award, Presidential Award for Science Teaching, NYS Health Emerging Innovator Awards, and Andrew Goodman Foundation, among others. She is the author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (2018).
Past lectures by our speakers include: