Indianz.Com > News > White Earth Nation responds to verdict in sexual harassment case
White Earth Indian Reservation
A sign on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota, home to the White Earth Nation. Photo: J. Stephen Conn
White Earth Nation responds to verdict in sexual harassment case
Winona LaDuke admits making ‘wrong’ decision in new statement to Indianz.Com
Tuesday, April 11, 2023

The White Earth Nation says it is developing an ethics code after hearing a “litany of concerns” about a prominent figure who has benefited from the tribe’s name for more than three decades.

In a statement on Friday, Chairman Michael Fairbanks said the tribe is “aware” of the stunning $750,000 verdict against Honor The Earth, a non-profit started by Winona LaDuke, an environmental activist and one of the most noteworthy White Earth citizens. However, he offered no comment about the lawsuit itself or any of the individuals involved.

“We appreciate the litany of concerns brought to the RBC’s attention regarding the matter,” Fairbanks said of the reservation business committee, the tribe’s governing board.

“At this time, the RBC is unable to provide specific comment regarding the civil case or regarding any of the individuals identified in the case,” Fairbanks said.

Still, Fairbanks said the “situation” — meaning the sexual harassment and retaliation that led to the verdict against Honor The Earth — remains cause for concern. He pointed to the development of an ethics code that would address how to protect the tribe going forward, even as LaDuke has been using the tribe’s name since since the establishment of her first “White Earth” non-profit back in 1989.

“The RBC is committed to providing opportunities for tribal members and their organizations to grow and agrees there must be systems in place to verify that those opportunities are consistent with the core values, laws, and policies of the White Earth Nation,” the chairman said. “The RBC will not support individuals or their organizations if their demonstrated conduct is contrary to the values and goals of the Band or the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.”

The statement came more than a week after the March 30 verdict against Honor The Earth, which was co-founded by LaDuke in 1993. But it isn’t the first time the reservation business committee has attempted to address her public efforts.

In July 2019, then Secretary-Treasurer Alan Roy said tribal citizens “raised concerns” about the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WERLP), which LaDuke established with the goal of restoring land to the tribe following more than a century of loss, theft and other negative government actions. The reservation, located in Minnesota, was subjected to allotment by the United States, resulting in non-Indians owning the vast majority of properties within its boundaries.

Some 30 years after the founding of WERLP, Roy said LaDuke’s organization had yet to return any land to tribal stewardship.

“As of this date and according to the White Earth Land Department, ‘WERLP has not conveyed any titles over to the Tribe; the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe has received zero parcels of land from the WELRP,'” Roy said in the July 18, 2019, statement.

“No lands have been transferred since 1989,” Roy added.

The announcement, in which Roy promised some sort of “financial inquiry” into WELRP, came just a couple of weeks after LaDuke publicly questioned the tribe’s economic development efforts. In a post on social media she said the tribe “spent $3.2 million buying back our land” — in order to propose a casino at an ancestral place known as Star Lake.

“Our tribe only had 500 acres of tribal agricultural land, and there are many many people who would like to farm on the reservation – not a hundred miles away in Star Lake,” LaDuke said in reference to the location of a gaming project that had already been canceled by the reservation business committee by the time of her post on July 5, 2019.

Long before proposing the casino, the tribe already had land in trust at Star Lake, located only about 40 miles from the southern border of the reservation, which incidentally is where LaDuke has largely been based.

For most of their history, Honor The Earth and the White Earth Land Recovery Project have been based in Callaway, a non-Indian governed city on the southern edge of the reservation. As part of an ongoing transition, Honor The Earth is moving offices to Ponsford, a small community on the reservation border, and where LaDuke has based yet another organization called Akiing. Callaway and Ponsford are located in Becker County, which LaDuke has accused of being racist.

Like the tribe’s efforts, a review of public records across Minnesota show that LaDuke and her expansive operations have engaged in land acquisitions away from their primary base of operations. An entity called Akiing 8th Fire, for example, owns about 408 acres in Sebeka, a community about 40 miles away in Wadena County.

In Hubbard County, Akiing 8th Fire owns about 23 acres in the the city of Park Rapids, according to land records there. The property is about 18 miles from Ponsford, where Honor The Earth has focused its Akiing Land Back Project.

LaDuke herself at one point owned another 25 acres in Hubbard County. Land records show she transferred the property to an entity she controlled called Akiing Land Company LLC, which later transferred title to Switchboard Trainers Network, a non-Indian non-profit from Texas.

“Ms. LaDuke and Akiing transferred title to the Switchboard Trainers Network because she and Akiing recognize that Switchboard is a community organization with which they have a sisterly relationship; that is to say, that Ms. LaDuke is politically supportive of groups or persons engaged in honoring the Earth and engaged in sustainable energy advocate,” a lawsuit in county court later stated.

The lawsuit was filed by LaDuke and by Tara Houska, another environmental activist who used to work for Honor The Earth, after the sheriff in Hubbard County attempted to block access to the property. The land, known as Namewag Camp, was used as part of the resistance to Line 3, a pipeline that runs through Ojibwe treaty territory in Minnesota.

Last September, Judge Jana M. Austad ruled that the county government and the sheriff overstepped their boundaries in trying to prevent LaDuke, Houska and others from accessing the camp, about 27 miles from Ponsford. Unlike her reaction to the sexual harassment and retaliation verdict against Honor The Earth that she linked to racism, LaDuke praised the judge by name in the press release about the decision.

The opposition to Line 3 has been one area where the White Earth Nation and Honor The Earth have been aligned. The two were plaintiffs in a series of lawsuits against the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for approving an expansion of the pipeline through areas used by the Ojibwe people in exercise of their treaty rights.

“We will never stop the fight to protect our future generations and children,” Chairman Fairbanks said after a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision from June 2021 paved the way for the expansion of Line 3 through Ojibwe territory.

Even before the 2019 statement about the White Earth Land Recovery Project, the tribe had given a grant to LaDuke’s organization. The 2018 annual report states that the money was used to distribute seeds in collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club on the reservation.

More recently, the reservation business committee (RBC) discussed community concerns about a “no-bid contract” that Fairbanks signed with 8th Fire Solar for a “sizable energy project” at White Earth. The “About Us” page on once credited LaDuke as the founder of the entity but her name, photo and role removed following an Indianz.Com story on April 7 story about her environmental endeavors.

“While the company has proposed a non-circumvent agreement and the Chairman has signed it without full RBC approval, the non-circumvent agreement remains unenforceable and not approved unless authorized in legal session,” notes from the February 2, 2022, meeting state.

“It is recommended that members contact the organization directly to answer questions,” the RBC wrote in referring tribal citizens to LaDuke’s operation.

At around the same time, LaDuke once again took aim at the tribe’s efforts. In an opinion column, she accused a familiar target — then Secretary-Treasurer Alan Roy — of signing a “secret contract for $4.9 million of your tribal money with a newly created entity you’ve never heard of, for a tribal energy plan.”

As noted by Judge Gretchen D. Thilmony in the sexual harassment and retaliation, Honor The Earth is a non-profit chartered in the state of Minnesota. The organization had tried to have the lawsuit dismissed by claiming its operations occurred in Indian Country — namely the White Earth Nation. The motion was dismissed prior to the $750,000 verdict on March 30.

8th Fire Solar
Winona LaDuke is the founder of 8th Fire Solar, according to a cached copy of the entity’s “About Us” page on Her name, photo and role have since been removed from the site.

Following the verdict, LaDuke issued a statement on April 1 acknowledging the outcome but failing to discuss her role in the scandal. On April 5, she posted on social media and said she “failed” to address the sexual harassment experienced by a former employee of Honor The Earth. She did not discuss the retaliation that was proven in court, or her part in keeping men accused of sexual misconduct in the organization’s inner circle, three instances of which were reported by Indianz.Com.

The April 5 statement, in which she said she resigned as executive director of the organization she founded, no longer appears to be visible on LaDuke’s social media profile on Facebook. She subsequently sent a message to Indianz.Com about the controversy.

“I just saw the headline on your story. Looks brutal,” she said in reference to the April 6 story that carried the title of “‘I failed Molly Campbell’: Winona LaDuke says racism to blame for $750K verdict as board chair calls victim ‘white girl.’

“I’m sorry I didn’t speak with you but gas been advised not to comment immediately for legal reasons. And I was also in pretty good pain from the whole experience,” LaDuke told Indianz.Com.

“I would never have said she was a white girl,” she said in reference to a comment made by the chair of the board of directors for Honor The Earth about the former employee. “She had been close to my family. It was just a very complex personnel issue..a lot [of] questions. I had no intention of being cruel nor breaking the law. Please know that.”

And of the social media post that now appears to be missing: “I think my statement explains some.”

“But the fact that these remarks made out of country or state while these two people lived together was confusing to me,” LaDuke said in apparent reference to the Honor The Earth employee who reported being sexually harassed by another employee. “I made the wrong legal decision without knowing and I resigned.”

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