On February 25, 1999, my friend Ingrid Washinawatok and her companions Lahe'ena'e Gay and Terence Freitas, were taken hostage by armed, masked men as they left the U'wa territory in Colombia after a week-long cultural and educational visit. Despite intense efforts by her family and so many friends, despite the tentative contacts we made with her captors through the church, the Red Cross, sympathetic embassies and directly to FARC, Ingrid, Lahe and Terry were found assassinated on March 4, just over the border in Venezuela. It is really hard to know what to say about Ingrid that could possibly do justice to her memory.
We first met almost twenty years ago, when she was a tall, skinny young woman fresh off the Menominee rez. She walked into the International Indian Treaty Council office in New York and simply lit the place up with her nonstop energy, her compassion and her incessant smile and laughter. Here was a true sister in the struggles of the day, but even more, here was a sister in life. How could you not love Ingrid? She would take such joy in what little I had to offer the Treaty Council in terms of legal research for human rights, keeping the landlords from throwing the Treaty Council out for lack of rent payments, or simply showing up at the office with the legal pads and other goodies I had liberated from my law firm's supply closet. Over the next two decades, Ingrid matured into a strong organizer and advocate for indigenous rights and cultural understanding. She became a clear and important voice in the philanthropic and international political communities, as Executive Director of the Fund for the Four Directions, as a founder of the Indigenous Womens Network, as a tireless participant at the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, as Chair of the NGO Committee on the UN International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, as organizer of the Native Council of New York...the list goes on and on.
Ingrid was a loving woman as well. I remember when she came back from studying in Cuba in the early 1980's, having met and fallen in love with a strong young Palestinian named Ali. I helped him get a green card. Such was the power of Ingrid's love that Ali and I became friends beyond my liberal left American Jewish and his Palestinian Lebanese politics. And in sharing the experience that was to come, Ali and I have become closer than brothers. Ingrid gave birth to and nurtured her son, Maehki, now 14, who combines the quiet loving presence of both her parents with the exuberance of a young colt.
It took a shocking six days to bring our loved ones home. Six days of dealing with the turf war between the State Dept and the FBI, six days of fending off corrupt coroners, six days of dealing with unfathomable grief, wild rumor, six days of hearing how the White House would do everything possible to bring them home soon and by the way would the families agree to let the government wrap the coffins in flags for the world to see our grief and to bolster support for our war against terrorism? Six days of bureacratic hell that were ultimately resolved with the greater assistance of my local travel agent and the magnanimous and anonymous charter of a private plane by a friend to bring Ingrid home from Miami.
I am hurt and angry, and I am being unfair.
There were people in the government, especially the State Dept, who worked long and hard to expedite the return of Ingrid, Lahe and Terry. They live in a world of regulations and funding priorities that limited their ability to get the job done quickly, despite what they themselves felt personally. Such is the nature of large organizations, although it is hard to keep perspective on this through the pain. Ironically, it was the Venezuelan military who broke the bureaucratic logjam, sending helicopters to ferry the necessary paperwork from outpost to courthouse to capital for processing, and who stood down the local officials looking for bribes to release to bodies.
The ceremonies on the Menominee lands to mark the passing of Ingrid's spirit were sobering and beautiful. So many faces and hearts from so many lands came to grieve and commemorate Ingrid's life and her passing. For me, it was like a review of twenty years of work with native peoples, as just about everyone I ever worked with was there, and I realized how many had been introduced to me by Ingrid.
The men's healing dancing the first night allowed Ingrid's spirit presence to help relieve our pain somewhat, while the press conferences and meetings to organize to seek justice revived the anger we all felt. People came, people went, all acknowledging the enormous amount of work needed to fulfill Ingrid's mission of indigenous cultural preservation and intercultural understanding, and to bring resolution to the meaningless violence that took the lives of Ingrid, Lahe and Terry.
Oh, dear Ingrid. How do we best honor you now? How can we continue your good work and support your family without your shining presence? In grief it is so difficult to see clearly, to react from a place of wisdom instead of a place of pain and anger. But that is what Ing would want, because that is who she was. So we move one heavy step at a time, knowing that her hand is always on our shoulder.