February 15 was a day of wonder in two ways. For one, it was the day huge numbers of people around the world expressed a desire for peace, a signal for world leaders in dozens of countries who would set the direction of history: consider peace as an active pursuit in world order.
The second wonder of the day was the public celebration in California of the life of Nilak Butler, Inuit environmental and human rights activist, actress and singer - a life celebrated by many hundreds on the same day. Nilak passed away last Dec. 16, after a thirty-month battle with ovarian cancer. Nilak was a mainstay of several Indian country organizations, and was an active and influential presence for nearly 30 years in the movements of American Indians in North America. She was able to lend assistance to many people and was the voice of conscience to many organizations focused on better environmental conditions and on the issues of peace and human rights for indigenous peoples and all peoples of the world.
The Feb. 15 turnout of such huge numbers of people around the world, and particularly the several hundred thousand at New York City gatherings, were an impressive display of much of humanity's desire to avoid the uncertainties of armed conflict in Iraq. Armed with the freedom to speak out either for or against their respective government policies, these people asked questions that reflected their deep anxiety. In a world where ideologically suicidal people who love nothing but war are still active in terrorist networks throughout the globe, why Iraq now? Why not pursue Al Qaeda? Why diminish the great good will for Americans and sustain the collective abhorrence of Al Qaeda that immediately followed 9-11? Why not focus on the clear and present danger? Why not have remained as leader of the great and just global cause against the specific terrorist network of Osama bin Laden?
Depending on one's perspective, either instead of or because of its fundamental desire to lead for peace, the United States with its allies are moving forward on a path meant to achieve a determined solution to the long, bloody legacy of a ruthless dictator and tyrant. Their supporters, also reflecting significant numbers of people, although less visible and less vocal (after all who really wants war), stress the increased risks of global catastrophe by enabling dangerous regimes to continue to operate with impunity. Would not a free and democratic Iraq and Middle East truly benefit the world? Why should those who used weapons of mass destruction on innocent villagers now be protected in situ? Does this not itself constitute terrorism? In the absence of freedom and equality for women are not some cultures doomed to perpetually recoil and strike out against the informed world? Why oppose the liberation of the Iraqi people?
Through the competing calls of war protesters and war supporters we witness the practice of freedom in the Western world. It may sound confusing and messy but there is nonetheless an ambiguous beauty in the cacophony of democracy. The U.S. stands ready to be the attacker and invader of a whole country in the heart of the Islamic world. Perhaps there is reason to remember the Mogadishu disaster. Good intentions or bad, invading Iraq has every danger of establishing a Mogadishu outcome, where the U.S. goes in as liberator and ends up as hated colonizer and imperialist. Not a few retired generals are questioning the need for a war that so dishevels the country's major military and economic alliances and further projects American hegemony over so much of the world.
There are also the lessons, supposedly learned, of France and Italy and Germany and Japan and the former Soviet Union. Americans, with not a few American Indians in the armed forces who love liberty, fought to restore freedom to the peoples of numerous European and Asian countries throughout the 20th century. Let us also not forget the recent lesson of Afghanistan. Does anyone really regret the defeat of the Taliban at the start of this century?
There are diverse logical approaches to these persistent questions and beliefs expressed by so many people, now all instantly connected within a global village. Certainly, the war road ahead is not as clear as talk radio tongues would have us believe. The costs could balloon. The political opposition to war is indeed organized, active and large. It cuts strongly across Europe, deeply even in among bosom allies like England, Australia, Spain and Italy. The U.S. response to the attacks of 9-11, in its migration toward Iraq, has instilled great fear of war in many peoples. Nevertheless, war, as John Mohawk ably predicted in his Indian Country Today column, is apparently inevitable. It is too expensive now, not to go to war. The sword is drawn. Some would also say that moral and strategic imperatives demand decisive action. The U.S. has moved a great army to the field and the wisdom of this policy, to be found in its outcome, resides nervously in the not-too-distant future.
Nilak Butler would certainly have been with the people who advocate for peaceful solutions on the day of her honoring. She was the consummate organizer and activist, driven by a passion to oppose all injustice and particularly violence and abuse against the women and the families of the Earth. Wrote her friends and sisters Faye Brown and Winona LaDuke about her life: "Her work as the Nuclear Free Native Lands Campaigner for Greenpeace and her many years of work for the Indigenous Environmental Network on community organizing initiatives allowed her to do what she did best - bring people together and strengthen communities. Nilak challenged all to work harder to defend Mother Earth and to care for each other in difficult times, now and in the future."
To the friends and relatives of Nilak Butler, our condolence and salute for the dedicated life of the well-respected activist and leader, who followed her conscience and made a difference. And to the many who followed their conscience on Feb. 15 and expressed their viewpoints on their feet, congratulations. In this day and age, it is the easiest thing to follow without determining one's own informed position. We salute all the activists for marching to their own drum. As our editors heard Nilak Butler say about federal policy makers, "Let's make them think."