About six months ago, Dan Pearson, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, swiveled around in his office chair in our tiny “headquarters” to ask what we thought about organizing a walk from Chicago to St. Paul, arriving just before the Republican National Convention. (www.vcnv.org). A dedicated group of volunteers joined Dan to plan a project, which, to me, is one of the best organized efforts I’ve ever encountered, all aimed at voicing a witness against war, particularly in Wisconsin, where 3,500 National Guard troops are on alert for a call-up to combat duty, in Iraq, in 2009. Generally, three to five “day walkers” will join our core group of nine walkers. We walk about fifteen miles each day carrying signs that call for an end to the war and for keeping Wisconsin National Guard troops home. The sign I carry on this walk reads “Rebuild Iraq, rebuild the U.S.” Another of our signs, decorated with the obligatory elephant and donkey, reads “We hold both parties responsible.” We began walking on July 12, 2008 and will arrive in St. Paul Minnesota on August 30th.
Our “Witness Against War” walk is in Wisconsin, traversing traditional land of the Ho-Chunk Nation, also known in English translation as “People of the Big Voice.” In 1836, U.S. settlers, including farmers and miners, coveted this lush farmland and its rich mining resources and forced the Ho-Chunk to sell it all for a pittance. The US government imposed repeated roundups and “removals” on them, resettling them from Wisconsin to Iowa, from Iowa to Minnesota, then to South Dakota and onward, in dangerous, and for some deadly forced transports. “In the winter of 1873, many Ho Chunk people were removed to the Nebraska reservation from Wisconsin, traveling in cattle cars on trains,” according to the Nation’s website (www.ho-chunknation.com). “This was a horrific experience for the people, as many elders, women and children suffered and died.” Some of the transports were imposed to remove the Ho-Chunk people from conflicts with other nations – conflicts created by previous forced transports.
But after the removals by train, they walked back on foot to Wisconsin, to reclaim their former homes, It’s a tale of immeasurable suffering, but because of these walks back they are still here, as the “Ho-Chunk Nation” in this beautiful Wisconsin land where their ancestors were buried.
And we’re here too, walking on behalf of people in Iraq who’ve been made refugees to escape U.S. violence, and also the sectarian violence made inevitable by the U.S. government’s wholesale dismantling of their country, whether achieved deliberately or through incompetence we can’t know. We’re walking for people who, like the Ho-Chunk people, were told that if they didn’t cooperate with a U.S. project to seize their precious and irreplaceable resources, we would kill them.
The name of the “Ho-Chunk” nation means “People of the Sacred Language,” or “People of the Big Voice.” And when no-one was listening to them, they spoke to each other and chose to return, and strengthened each other for the return here where their action spoke louder than words and they eventually, after eleven removals and five weary returns, were ceded parts of their original land.
I and my companions here think of deliberate nonviolent action as a sacred language. Tomorrow we’re crossing the line into Fort McCoy to protest the cynical use of our young men and women, many of them seeking opportunities denied them in their communities, to kill and dispossess members of the Iraqi nation, to drive them into refuge in Jordan and Syria, to drive them into conflict the one against the other arming first this faction and then that with more and more weapons in the name of establishing “security forces,” so that we will have an excuse to occupy this oil-rich region for ages to come, whatever platitudes our leaders may offer now about eagerness some day to withdraw. Several of us may face several months in jail. Our leaders will continue to use these lands for wrongful purposes and we will keep walking back, until enough of our fellows join us that we are allowed to reclaim these lands, and our resources, to be the refuge and the comfort of all.
The United States is called a democracy. That means “People of the Big Voice.” A sacred language. But we as a nation are not yet ready to use our voices loud enough to be heard, or to use our feet, when our voices are ignored, in the sacred language of nonviolent direct action, in resistance to the greedy powerful few who would limit our choices to choices of war and claim all lands, heedless of the voices of the people living in them, for the purposes of greed. The world looks to us, much of it in genuine pain and anguish, asking when are we going to rescue them from our government, by expressing our wish for peace at long last in the Big Voice we have always claimed as our heritage?