September 3, 1953-December 26, 2002
Written by Winona LaDuke at the time of her passing ...
Nilak Butler, renowned human rights and environmental activist, actress, singer, sister and auntie to many passed onto the spirit world on December 26, 2002 at the age of 49. Nilak died after a two and a half year battle with ovarian cancer.
She was an amazing presence to all that knew her, whether it was her strong and clear voice singing in the sweat lodge or the political clarity and determination she voiced in her organizing. Nilak will be remembered for so much. Born in Alaska into an Inuit family, she was adopted out as an infant. She traveled the road of many of her generation, from foster home to adoptive home to foster home, eventually ending up finding her way back to Indian Country. On that path, she starred in the movie "White Dawn", a period movie where she played a young Inuit woman who had befriended explorers in the region. It was in making "White Dawn" that Nilak discovered her own Inuit ancestry. In 1974, she returned to Los Angeles and while performing in the play Savages, she met members of AIM and joined the movement.
Nilak (until that time known as Kelly Jean McCormick) met Dino Butler, a Rogue River Tututni and AIM activist at the take over of the Abby on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin. They married and together, continued their work in defending Native rights. The two ended up that fateful day of June 26, 1975 in Oglala on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where FBI agents came upon the Jumping Bull Tiosapaye land, and a shoot out ensued. When the firefight ended two FBI agents and AIM member Joe Stuntz were dead. Nilak's life, like many others, was marked by that event, with much of her subsequent life spent defending political prisoners and working on court cases for human rights and the rights of Native people.
She was a founding mother of many organizations including the Indigenous Women's Network and the Indigenous Environmental Network. In the l990s, she turned towards more land and environmental work, working for some years in the community of Point Hope in Alaska, which had been ravaged by nuclear materials placed there by the Department of Defense as an experiment to test radioactive accumulation in lichen, caribou and humans. Returning to her Inuit territory seemed to steel her determination to work on environmental justice issues. 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 had a wide spectrum of skills, from coordinating event logistics to developing innovative local, national and international strategies. She stood for an inclusive process that insured groups and/or communities organically made and owned their own decisions. Nilak could cut to the chase, clearly state what she saw happening and put the options for solving problems out on the table. That was her special gift. As a result, the language she used, from press releases to resolutions, was always proactive. She brought these gifts with her in her work across the continent and world, from Geneva to Nevada to Ecuador, Minnesota and the Philippines.
Despite the very serious responsibility she felt toward her work, Nilak knew how to have fun. She loved to cook and eat good food, wear beautiful clothes she got at a bargain, watch good movies and dance to soul and R&B music. She paid incredulous attention to detail in her crafts she loved to create. Her beadwork, needlepoint and sewing are all works of art. She had a fire for life and a passion for living. She did all she could to beat the odds of having cancer because she embraced and enjoyed this life, and because she wanted to continue giving of herself.
Her illness was largely a consequence of her circumstances. Nilak fell through the cracks of American society. Nilak did not have access to Indian Health Service facilities as she was not an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe-- a circumstance of adoption. Nilak viewed her illness much as a mirror of the illness of Mother Earth: toxified, ill cared for, and challenged with constant crises. She challenged all to work harder to defend Mother Earth, and to care for each other in difficult times, now and in the future.
She will be remembered as a talented artist and actress, caring auntie and sister, committed, determined and honest activist and a woman who not only survived but overcame many daunting challenges in her life.