WASHINGTON – Green Party vice-presidential candidate Cheri Honkala says her Chippewa heritage is a part of her biography that few people this year have asked her about during her run for the White House—even though it has influenced almost every aspect of her life’s work and many facets of her personal life, too.
From fighting for environmental justice to struggling with extreme poverty to coping with an early childhood rife with domestic violence to having a brother who committed suicide, Honkala says her story mirrors that of many American Indians today.
It’s a reality that few mainstream politicians share, and she believes it is important for Native people to support candidates who understand them from personal experience.
“The Democrats and Republicans have thrown indigenous people down the stairs time and again,” Honkala says. “It’s only when we say ‘no, this is enough, I am leaving this abusive relationship’ that we can truly be free.”
But can a third party, itself struggling for widespread recognition, really be a beacon of light for Indian country?
Honkala says yes, and shared her strong thoughts on the two-party system, compromised values, and tribal involvement in politics in a pre-election interview with Indian Country Today Media Network.
With Superstorm Sandy having wreaked untold damage on the East Coast, many folks are talking about climate change once again. Is Sandy going to foster action in this area?
I think that we are still in trouble. That’s regardless of whether we elect President [Barack] Obama or Mitt Romney, we are not going to address this climate crisis. Obama’s record doesn’t give me much hope that he takes climate change seriously. Both major parties are funded by corporate America. As long as they’re funded by the coal companies and other corporations that don’t care whether we have clean water or air or land, we’re going to see this crisis escalate.
Indigenous people, for so long, have been calling attention to Mother Earth, and they need to keep on doing so. In my travels to many reservations over the years, I have seen the people there get it. The people at the bottom of the Titanic already know the effects because they face them first. We have to figure out how to build the raft to get people off of it.
Can you talk about your American Indian heritage?
I can talk very little about it because I have been culturally divorced. I was raised to the age of ten without knowing who my real father was. I was raised in about nine different institutions before I was 16. I came to find out that my father was Chippewa. My brother and I were always treated a little differently than my siblings [from a different father]. We had thought we all had the same father. But when I found my birth certificate, I noticed something fundamentally different about my father. He was Chippewa. He was dark-skinned. It finally explained why myself and my brother look nothing like our sisters.
Did you ever connect with your biological father?
I went through several years of trying to find him, and finally connected with him after my brother killed himself in 1981. He checked on us after that…. I tried for a period of time to connect [more], and traveled once to Red Lake, but I haven’t had time to learn as much as I want. I have lived a life similar to that of many Native folks. What I do know is that I have Native blood, and my blood has spilled over to the rest of my family. I have also worked with some amazing indigenous leaders, like Vernon Bellecourt. I know that my future will take me in a direction of either turning the White House into the Green House or the penitentiary. I am definitely a warrior by blood.
How does this ‘warrior’ philosophy influence your politics?
It’s time we go back to our roots where we live communally and collectively. We need to focus on the real priorities in life. We need to stand up for what is right. That is what the Green Party platform is all about.
Are there many Native Americans in the Green Party?
I think that Winona LaDuke [who is Anishinaabe and who ran as a Green Party vice-presidential candidate with Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000] really paved the way. She brought in a lot of Natives to the party. Other folks, including myself, have worked hard to connect with tribal communities. I hope to see in the years to come an even bigger increase because neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have similar values to most indigenous people. The Greens value the Earth and the climate. They value taking care of each other. They value culture and sovereignty.
It is a matter of mass education [to get more people involved], which is quite difficult in this era of corporate funding of American elections. The Democrats in particular have worked hard to keep away Third Party ideas, especially among tribes. They have paid lip service to issues that many tribal citizens care about, like climate change, but they haven’t taken strong action on it.
American Indians are used to long being ignored or mistreated by American politicians. The Green Party has its own battles to fight for broader recognition. Why should Natives tie themselves to that difficult battle instead of trying to make change within the two-party system?
Under the current system, many reservations are struggling worse than anywhere else, economically speaking. Greens want to lift up those struck by poverty, to fight for those who have had their land stolen, and to address all of the other health, education, and housing problems. There’s nothing more important than one’s culture, spirituality, well-being, and identity. People are not going to find that by going with the lesser of two evils. I have faith that those of us who have been kept invisible and silent will keep organizing, break the media blackout, and save the planet in the long run. We have to get serious about reclaiming our power and not defining power as necessarily coming from the halls of Congress. We will never give up. We owe this to our ancestors. I talk to our youth, who have learned from their elders. And I see a great deal of hope for the future. That hope means breaking with a two-party system that’s controlled by corporate America.
It used to be the Democrats saying that it was the Republicans being controlled by corporate America.
This campaign season, for many Democrats to keep pace on raising money, more have turned to corporate donations. It’s troubling. The overall system is broken. Indigenous people have long known that this system is flawed. It says that if you can’t be exploited, then you are basically expendable.
So what to do?
I think that we are a sleeping giant in this country. We’re waking up right now because our stomachs are empty. I think we’ve gotten to the point where it’s this huge snowball going down a hill. It’s beginning to build momentum. And there is no going back. I think Native people are playing an important role in the process.
Your running mate, Jill Stein, was arrested recently for supporting demonstrators against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Mitt Romney has said he wants to start building it right away if elected. President Obama is still studying the issue. How do you feel about it?
They are killing us! Robbing land; trampling culture. This is a perfect example of how corporations are taking over, and they don’t care about the people, or the long-term impacts. It was important for us to have one of the last major statements our campaign made to be on Keystone XL, which is why Jill got arrested. We want to send a major message to all of the population that says we cannot sit this one out. We’ve got to take a stand. This has gone far enough and is not going to change until we get elected officials in office who value human beings over corporate greed.
How can American Indians learn more about the Green Party?
Friend me and Jill on Facebook, and visit JillStein.org.