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IEN Statement in Memory of Nilak Butler

Nilak Butler, started her journey to the spirit world on December 26, 2002, at the age of 49. She died after two and half years of battling advanced ovarian cancer.

December 30, 2002

Nilak Butler

To the Family, Relatives and Friends of Nilak Butler,

Our prayers go out to the family and relatives of our friend, sister and aunt- Nilak Butler. Our hearts are touched with sadness as we bid farewell to her and reflect on all the cherished moments we had with her.

Nilak, one of the founders of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), dedicated the past twelve years to doing environmental justice work with Indigenous communities. For near thirty years, Nilak dedicated her life to defending the rights of Indigenous peoples from the Oglala Lakota community in South Dakota to the communities of Big Mountain/Black Mesa in the territories of the Navajo and Hopi Nations to Inupiat communities in Alaska.

Nilak provided extensive organizing and training expertise to our network and the communities served. When she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she was coordinating the IEN Labor Occupational Health Program, a partnership between IEN and the University of California Berkeley program. She helped create a worker health and safety educational training program for tribal employees and tribal grassroots environmental justice organizations.

During the 1990s, Nilak was a campaigner with the Greenpeace Nuclear Free Native Lands Campaign. She worked with both Native and Pacific Island communities impacted by radioactive exposure and tribal communities threatened with becoming sites for the dumping of nuclear waste. She helped organize the Indigenous Anti-Nuclear Summit held in 1996 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, sponsored by the Seventh Generation Fund. This Summit brought together a network of Native and Pacific Islanders negatively impacted by the nuclear chain. Nilak played a pivotal role in drafting the Declaration that emerged from this Summit.

Her work as a campaign organizer on nuclear issues took her from nuclear weapons testing issues in the Pacific Islands to the Native Village of Point Hope, Alaska, where the U.S. military disposed radioactive waste in the homelands of the Inupiat peoples. She worked with the Western Shoshone and Goshute Shoshone of the Great Basin, where years of U.S. nuclear weapons testing took place, exposing Shoshone and Paiute peoples to radioactive contamination. She collaborated with these communities to address current health and ecological issues and worked along side them to oppose nuclear waste dumps slated for their territories. Nilak continued her anti-nuclear work in the southwest where Navajo and Pueblo uranium miners, millers and surviving family members are seeking compensation from radioactive exposures from working in uranium mines. In recent years, up until her illness with cancer, she was developing the IEN nuclear and energy campaign. She brought deep insights and clear thinking to all aspects of her work and our campaigns.

As a member of the Indigenous Women's Network, Nilak provided leadership and provided us strength to stand strong in protecting the sacredness of our Earth Mother. Her memory will continue to fuel the sacred fire that burns in our hearts to defend our families, our lands and fight for the rights of all Indigenous peoples.

Written by Tom B.K. Goldtooth, on behalf of the Indigenous Environmental Network, staff, volunteers, advisory members and affiliates.

INDIGENOUS ENVIRONMENTAL NETWORK - PO BOX 485 - BEMIDJI, MINNESOTA 56619 USA - (218) 751-4967(218) 751-4967 - [email protected]

In Loving Memory
Nilak Butler
September 3, 1953-December 26, 2002

By Winona LaDuke

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. Nilak surpassed all medical predictions and expectations, just as she surmounted all the barriers in her life. She truly lived her life in a good way. She is missed in her passing. Her body rests now, but her strong spirit and the teachings she left remain with us.

Nilak is survived by her daughter, little Nilak Elliot and her grandson Levi Elliot, her brothers John Trudell, Dino Butler, Robert Butler, Bruce Ellison, Tom Goldtooth and Tyler Barlow, her sisters Johnella Sanchez, Tawna Sanchez, Bernadette Zambrano, Pam Tau Lee, Gina Picaldo, Ursula Chance, Virginia Sanchez, Mililani Trask, Jill Nunokawa, Trisha Jordan, Madeline Sahme, Laura Booth, Winona LaDuke, Lori Pourier, Faye Brown, Jan Stevens, Leanne LaBar, Shelly Vendiola, Adelle Ratt, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, her nieces Sage Trudell, Song Trudell, Star Trudell, Waseyabin Kapashesit, Sasha Brown and Anna Goldtooth, her nephews Coup Trudell, Tikaan Trudell, Maeh-kiw El-Issa and Ajuak Kapashesit, her grandniece Tinan Trudell, her grandnephew Eli Cruz Trudell, many close friends and relatives and her four beloved cats, Boy, Heathen, Pagan and Moosie.

A Celebration of Nilak Butler's Life is planned for Saturday, February 15 in Laytonville, California at Harwood Hall beginning at 1:00 PM. For more information, please visit

"Today this world is a lesser place. Today the next world is better place. While we grieve Nilak's leaving this reality, the ancestors rejoice at Nilak's arrival in the ancestral reality. Nilak was, is and will always be a part of us. In the way of spirit, we are fortunate in that we now know the name of one of our spirit helpers, Nilak Butler. The circle continues."

--John Trudell