Winona LaDuke talks pandemics and pathways at First Thursday


Photo courtesy of Communications and Marketing

Maddie Heinz, Associate News Editor

On Sept. 1, under the familiar drone of bagpipes, students, faculty, staff and the greater Macalester community gathered to celebrate First Thursday, the annual tradition marking the beginning of a new school year. The celebration honored new students, faculty and staff and featured an address by keynote speaker Winona LaDuke.

LaDuke, an environmentalist, economist and activist known for her work in tribal land preservation and Indigenous rights, acknowledged the tumultuous and uncertain times in which the student body has been living in the last few years. 

“These are epic times,” LaDuke said, pointing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “These are the times of catastrophes of Biblical proportions… and political catastrophes of American democracy, that seems to be an experiment that’s not working out right now.” 

However, LaDuke was not pessimistic about students’ futures, and she instead emphasized the change that comes from times of struggle.

“Pandemics have always forced societies to change,” LaDuke said, quoting writer Arundhati Roy. “This one is no different. It is a portal from one world to the next.”

LaDuke also recalled a prophecy of the Anishinaabe people, of which she is a member:

“The Anishinaabe refer to this as the time of the seventh fire,” LaDuke said. “We have a choice between two paths: one well-worn and scorched, and one green. It is our choice as Anishinaabe people of which path to embark. How are we going to make a peaceful future? How are we going to take a green path?” 

Before LaDuke spoke, President Suzanne Rivera announced the launch of the Macalester Native and Indigenous Initiative (MNI). The initiative plans to create an annual residency program for Indigenous experts, the inclusion of four postdoctoral Indigenous scholars, an Indigenous Voices series featuring various speakers and student internship opportunities with community partners. 

“We believe that Macalester can grow into an intellectual powerhouse in Indigenous Studies,” Rivera said. 

She also especially thanked history professor Katrina Phillips, who was instrumental in MNI’s conception and funding. 

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter also spoke at the ceremony for the second year in a row. Carter asked the student body to take advantage of their position in life to “make this world a better place.”

“You are in the most incredible place you could possibly be right now,” Carter said. “You have the ability to make this space, this college, this city, this country, this world, this planet– you have the ability to make this space the space that deserves you.”

In typical fashion, First Thursday opened with a flag procession and an opening convocation by Macalester’s chaplain, Reverend Kelly Stone. Provost Lisa Anderson-Levy and Macalester College Student Government (MCSG) Vice President Bobbie Pennington ’24 also spoke and he recounted his own experiences as a first-year. “It’s a scary thing, trust me,” Pennington said. “I remember trembling at the thought of, after seven years of being at a school where I knew everybody, [having] to make new friends.” 

Pennington then offered advice to new students, encouraging them to lean outside of their comfort zones. He also urged returning students to do the same. 

“None of us are done with our [Macalester] experience,” Pennington said.

In addition to speakers, Macalester welcomed the Trads, one of the school’s a cappella groups, to perform, and followed with a picnic lunch on Shaw Field. 


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