Activists Gave Lives
In Defense Of Native Rights
by Doug George-Kanentiio

News From Indian Country
© March 21, 1999
Standing up and speaking out in defense of Aboriginal people can be deadly. On March 4 three Americans, two of whom were Natives, were murdered while on a mission to support Indigenous people in Colombia.

Ingrid Washinawatok, 41, a Menominee from Wisconsin, Lahe'ena Gay, 39, a Native Hawaiian, and Terence Freitas, 24 of New York City, were kidnapped February 25 and held captive for what was surely an agonizing week before being executed on the western shore of the Arauca River.

Shot while blindfolded and with their hands tied, the three activists had brushed aside warnings from the US State Department not to enter into the eastern part of Colombia which has experienced three decades of warfare between the Colombian government and a guerrilla army called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (its acronym is FARC).

According to the New York Times, the struggle between the Marxist-Leninist FARC and the central government has claimed over 30,000 lives, with the Americans but the latest victims. The three Native rights activists may have felt they had little to fear from either rebels or the government since their presence in Colombia was to lend aid to the U'wa people, an aboriginal group which had served as hosts for the North Americans.

Washinawatok was in U'wa territory to assist in the creation of a school system while Gay was involved in the preservation of Indigenous knowledge systems.

Freitas had been in the U'wa area previously to help them organize against the exploitation of their Aboriginal territory by Occidental Petroleum, an American company located in Los Angeles.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel carried a story which stated Freitas had been warned by the Colombian police to refrain from becoming involved in the oil dispute although the government there maintains it had nothing to do with the killings which, it stated, took place in territory controlled by FARC.

But the struggle for Native rights was clearly a compelling reason for the three victims to go to Colombia. Their deaths in defense of Aboriginal people is but the latest tragic episode between natural resource developers and Native nations, most of whom see themselves as custodians of the land bound by virtue of their traditional morals to resist the exploitation of the earth.

Certainly, the Haudenosaunee understand this struggle since the Iroquois have sent fact finding missions to Colombia, Brazil, Nicaragua and Guatemala to discuss methods for the exchange of information leading to the creation of mutual support networks to protect environment and culture.

Connections have been made with other Indigenous peoples such as the Sammi of Sweden, the Okinawans of Japan, Aborigines of Australia and First Nations of Canada. Such actions are not without risk since the empowerment of Native nations inevitably results in clashes with central governments and resource hungry corporations.

Over the past generations, the Haudenosaunee have entertained Native ambassadors from around the world while working with their nations before such entities as the United Nations in an effort to gain a permanent Indigenous seat within the world assembly.

The Iroquois were also personal friends with Ms. Washinawatok and Ms. Gay, having met with them at various Native rights conferences across North America. Ms. Washinawatok in her capacity as director of the New York City based Four Directions Fund had lent considerable aid to the Haudenosaunee in its fight to maintain its political and environmental heritage. These three courageous ones paid the ultimate price for acting on principles which compelled them to take a stand for the U'was, Mother Earth guardians, as well as for Indigenous people worldwide.

May the Earth embrace these brave ones as they are returned to her, to be greeted with honor by those martyrs who have already made the journey to the Spirit World.

Tributes For Ingrid
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