by Jacqueline Keeler
of Ingrid Washinawatok apparently marks a sad milestone -- the
first time that a Native North American woman has died doing human rights
work among Native people in South America.
In an unhappy way, it draws attention to the fact that the growing number of international meetings on the environment and human rights abuses has led to a growing network of indigenous leaders and activists who share skills, resources and information in fighting similar issues.
Washinawatok, 41, Terence Freitas and Lahe'ena'e Gay were kidnapped off a bus heading for the airport on February 25, two hundred miles outside of Bogota. They had just spent two weeks on the reservation of the U'wa helping develop an education program using traditional culture, language and religion.
Gay, 39, a Native Hawaiian with the Pacific Cultural Conservancy International in Hawaii, had established a similar educational center in Panama.
Washinawatok met the leader of the U'wa and heard how they had closed church-run schools which denigrated their culture. Gay and Washinawatok sought to share the culture-respecting curriculum developed by indigenous people in the United States.
The U'wa, a tribe of about 5-7,000 people, made international headlines in 1997 when they threatened mass suicide if Occidental Petroleum, based in Bakersfield, California did not cease exploratory drilling on their reservation. In a similar vein, the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin was "terminated" in 1954 by the U.S. Congress. They regained federal recognition in 1969 and are now embroiled in a fight with Exxon to prevent contamination of their lands and sacred sites.
Colombian and U.S. officials were quick to blame the abduction on the leftist guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In a press release, President Clinton expressed outrage and demanded that "the FARC accept responsibility for these crimes and immediately surrender those who committed them."
However, Washinawatok's family and Apesanahkwat, chairman of the Menominee tribe said they held the U.S. State Department at least partly responsible for her death. The week of her death, the U.S. State Department issued $230 million to the Colombian government for a crackdown on leftist rebels. Colombia is one of the biggest recipients of U.S. foreign aid for the drug war, despite having one of the world's worst human rights records. The money, the Menominee assert, led to military/paramilitary killings of about 70 FARC rebels later that week. In a statement, the Indigenous Women's Network, of which Washinawatok was co-chair, has demanded a full investigation of the U.S. State Department's role in the deaths.
After first denying any connection with the murders, FARC leaders announced on March 10 that a guerrilla commander and three rebels under his command were responsible and would be "sanctioned." Paul Reyes, a senior commander of FARC, said, "We condemn the abominable assassination of the three Americans," and asked for the forgiveness of indigenous people around the world, the United States, the Colombian government and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
People close to Freitas, 24, an environmental activist who had worked with the U'wa tribe, noted that the FARC knew of his work and had given him clearance.
The U'wa community reacted forcefully to initial news about the killings, with some leaders threatening retaliation against the killers. Evaristo Tegria, an U'wa community member, said of the three, "As indigenous people they knew our situation and supported us."
Washinawatok was director of the New York-based Fund for the Four Directions, which focuses on American Indian issues, and sat on the boards of several groups working to help indigenous people. She was also the first chair of the United Nations Committee for the International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples (1995-2004).
As more and more Native North Americans work with their relatives in Central and South America they must decide how best to use their dual citizenship to further the rights and causes of indigenous peoples.
Many are watching the Menominee Nation for clues as to how indigenous nations in North America will deal with international tragedies, particularly with countries like Colombia that have a record of genocide of their own indigenous peoples.
There is a hope that the great care and kind spirit shown by Washinawatok and the others will carry the day.
March 11, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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