Winona LaDuke resigns from Honor the Earth

Longtime environmental activist steps down after $750k court judgment in sexual harassment lawsuit

By: - April 5, 2023 2:48 pm

Winona LaDuke, founder and then-executive director of Honor the Earth, speaks about a protest march on June 7, 2021, to stop construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline project in northern Minnesota. Photo by Mary Annette Pember/Indian Country Today.

This story first appeared in Indian Country Today.

Longtime environmental activist Winona LaDuke resigned as executive director of the nonprofit environmental justice group she founded, Honor the Earth, four days after a jury ordered the organization to pay $750,000 in a sexual harassment lawsuit.

The organization announced LaDuke’s resignation on its website Wednesday, April 5, and its new executive director, Krystal Two Bulls, Oglala Lakota/Northern Cheyenne, who joined Honor the Earth in January as co-director.

In her resignation letter, LaDuke, White Earth Ojibwe, apologized for not responding to former employee Margaret “Molly” Campbell’s sexual harassment claims “with the appropriate level of care and urgency” when Campbell reported them.

“In 2014-2015, I failed Molly Campbell,” LaDuke said in the letter. “I am sorry for the hurt caused to Ms. Campbell, and I am sorry for the broader harm that resulted, too.”

LaDuke said she took “personal responsibility for the mistakes made in this case … I was the executive director and it was my job to create a good foundation to heal and move forward.”

But she also criticized the court and jury, saying the March 30 verdict against Honor the Earth was reflective of the demographics in the Minnesota county where a state civil court jury heard the evidence.

“In Becker County, where Native people make up only 7% of the population, 38% of the people in jail are Native,” she said. “The court system is a punitive, white, carceral system that targets Native Peoples. In such a forum, it was unsurprising that the result would be a staggering and disproportionate fine against Honor the Earth.”

Honor the Earth board Chairman Paul DeMain said the organization “will forever be grateful” for LaDuke’s “tireless service to this organization” but said her resignation was accepted “in order to move ahead with the important work that Honor the Earth does in Native communities and for the protection of the environment in greater Minnesota.”

Two Bulls said the next few months will be a period “of intense changes, learning and growing for us as leadership, management, staff and our organization as a whole.”

Two Bulls said in a separate statement posted on the organization’s website that the organization’s mission will continue.

“My goal for this next iteration of Honor the Earth is to create a firm, principled, standard for our work, internally and externally, that will help us meet the needs of our People, communities and our Mother Earth,” Two Bulls said.

The lawsuit shook the organization’s relationship with NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led advocacy organization that contributes funds to Honor the Earth. The organizations’ grantee-partnership ends on April 14, and NDN Collective had indicated that future partnerships would “hinge on the integrity and demonstration of [Honor the Earth’s] community harmony and safety protocols.”

NDN Collective also reported that Honor the Earth had violated its grant funding agreement by not notifying it of the litigation, saying NDN Collective learned of the lawsuit only after the jury’s decision was reported in the news.

“It is our sincere hope that Honor the Earth can move forward from this painful moment in a way that repairs community harm and fosters authentic accountability for perpetrators,” according to the statement.

Failure to protect

In the 2019 lawsuit, Campbell said she was subjected to repeated sexual harassment from a co-worker and that the organization led by LaDuke had failed to protect her. A civil jury ruled in Campbell’s favor, awarding her $750,000 for sexual harassment, mental suffering and retaliation.

Earlier, in 2019, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights concluded that there “was no probable cause” to show that Honor the Earth was guilty of the offenses but cleared Campbell to file a lawsuit.

“She reported the harassment to her boss, but rather than protect her the organization protected her harasser at her expense,” said Campbell’s attorney, Christy Hall of Gender Justice. “But Margaret did not back down. Her lawsuit, and the jury’s findings, are an important reminder of the responsibility every employer has to end workplace harassment and abuse.”

Campbell worked at Honor the Earth from 2009 to 2015, first as an intern and then as a paid employee assigned to development and special projects. In 2013, she began working with Michael Dahl, who joined the staff from a radio station operated by the White Earth Land Recovery Project, also founded by LaDuke, according to the lawsuit.

Dahl could not be reached for comment by ICT.

On several occasions in 2014, the lawsuit states, Dahl made sexual remarks and sexual gestures toward Campbell and others, in some instances in front of other people.

Campbell said LaDuke was dismissive of her complaints, saying in separate meetings with her about Dahl’s behavior that he lacked social skills, and that he couldn’t be held responsible for his words and actions.

LaDuke told Campbell at one point that Dahl wasn’t dangerous and that, “we need to think about what redemption looks like … he does such good work,” the lawsuit states.

Campbell said board members were also dismissive or defensive. On Feb. 4, 2015, an Honor the Earth board member notified Campbell that she was being placed on unpaid administrative leave for speaking about the sexual harassment with a staff member of the Indigenous Environmental Network, which frequently collaborates with Honor the Earth.

Campbell said she later received a letter from LaDuke’s lawyer threatening legal action If she did not “stop the defamation and walk away quietly.”

LaDuke later placed Dahl on administrative leave and, on Feb. 26, 2015, notified Honor the Earth’s supporters that the board of directors had adopted a no-tolerance sexual harassment policy, according to court records.

Two Bulls said the organization will work to recover from the experience.

“We have learned real lessons and want nothing more than this to be an example to other organizations about the deep work our communities, organizations, collectives, and movement spaces still have to do around sexual harassment,” she said. “The movement is in a moment of moving away from allowing these types of behaviors to further traumatize our people. For far too long, it has not been taken seriously in our communities, especially those rife with the generational traumas that came out of the experiences in boarding schools. Honor The Earth is committed to the listening, healing and the intentional work ahead.”

Swift reactions

LaDuke spent decades working on environmental issues protesting against pipelines and advocating for water protection and other issues throughout Indian Country.

A Harvard-educated economist, she ran as the vice presidential candidate on the Green Party ticket with Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000, and in 2021, she was arrested along with several other women while protesting against the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota. She is still fighting criminal charges arising from the pipeline protests.

In the resignation letter, LaDuke said she will return to her farm and will support the organization as it transitions to new leadership.

“I will deepen my writing work, as there is much history to record and more to make,” she wrote. “As the long winter comes to an end, I intend to enjoy the soil and warmth ahead and to grow and create a better way.”

The announcement of LaDuke’s resignation drew swift responses praising her lifetime of work.

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of The Indigo Girls, who co-founded Honor the Earth with LaDuke 30 years ago, said it was an honor to work with her.

“Working under her mentorship these past 30 years has been the privilege of a lifetime, and we will continue to learn from Winona as she does her life’s work,” according to the statement.

“Now, as allies and board members of Honor the Earth, we are committed to the energy justice and culture sustainability work in Indian Country that Honor will continue to do under the leadership of Krystal Two Bulls,” they said. “We will always be grateful to Winona for her tireless work, her wisdom, her brilliance and her humanity.”

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Richard Arlin Walker
Richard Arlin Walker

Richard Arlin Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is an Indian Country Today correspondent reporting from Western Washington. He writes for Underscore News, Hamiinat magazine, and other publications