Seeking Dignity and Respect in Xukurú Struggle

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Seeking Dignity and Respect in Xukurú Struggle

By Juan Miguel Pedraza, Writer/Editor, University Relations

In an ongoing human rights struggle now several years running, Marcia Mikulak recently won a major victory when a Xukurú (Shoo-koo-roo) tribal human rights petition she drafted was recently approved by the American Anthropological Association.

The Xukurú do Ororubá continue their struggle to find resources for legal counsel for about 40 individual civil indictments against their community leaders who campaign for the development and support of basic human rights, which include the right to culturally appropriate education, health care, and environmental rights, according to Mikulak, who has spent several years working with the Xukurú on their human rights quest.

“My academic research and activism works to support the goals set forth by United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007,” said Mikulak, an associate professor of anthropology at UND.

“This is the only human rights document drafted with the participation of the world’s indigenous peoples, which seeks to address the dignity, respect, and common humanity shared by all people,” Mikulak said. “My research addresses culturally constructed perspectives that generate violence against indigenous peoples in Brazil as they reconstruct their collective identities in the 21st century.”

Mikulak’s letter--now endorsed by the American Anthroplogical Association--is a timely reminder of the plight of indigenous peoples around the globe, a fact underscored by this year’s 10th anniversary of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The UNPFII is part of the Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

With the American Anthropological Association’s seal of approval, Mikulak will push forward with her multi-year project in support of the Xukurú people’s human rights request.

Mikulak, a concert pianist turned researcher who speaks fluent Portuguese, wrote the document while on developmental leave last year in the Xukurú tribal homelands in Serra (Mountains) do Ororubá, in the municipality of Pesqueira in the state of Pernambuco, Brazil. Mikulak worked for several months researching documentation to support the Xukurú claims regarding human rights abuses perpetrated against the tribe by the Brazilian federal and state governments.

Recently returned from Brazil, Mikulak spent her time there on academic developmental leave working closely with Chief Marcos and his Xukurú tribe. The Xukurú– whose leadership in the reconstruction of indigenous identity movements in Brazil has assisted in bringing national attention to Brazil's ongoing violence against indigenous peoples – are a case study of successful activism.

Mikulak’s fieldwork focused on identifying the types of violence used against the Xukurú in their fight to regain their ancestral lands and identified various strategies used by them to successfully regain most of their territory.

“Unfortunately, successful activism also frequently results in violence by the state against indigenous peoples,” Mikulak said. “The Xukurú have lost six people to assassins bullets, including the father of Cacique (Kah-see-kay) Marcos Xukurú, or Xicão (Shee-kao) Xukurú.”

In 2003, Marcos was himself the victim of an attempted assassination that took the lives of two young Xukurú men who protected him from the assassins bullets.

Human rights research

Mikulak’s research sought to link current international human rights documents used to protect and support indigenous peoples to current on-the-ground social activism. She hopes that those documents can be used for support by other indigenous nations in their struggle for dignity and the assurance of their constitutional and international human rights. She also worked to develop innovative funding possibilities to support indigenous identity formations, nation building, and constitutional and human rights needs.

Gaining the support of the AAA for this letter--essentially a human rights petition--is an important victory for the support of indigenous human rights in Brazil and advances the AAA’s mission of increasing its collaboration and influence with anthropologists around the world.

“While in Brazil, I presented my work to students in primary, secondary, and university settings, encouraging awareness of the value of Indigenous peoples and their cultures,” Mikulak said. “Presentations in primary, secondary, and university settings in North Dakota are also considered an important contribution of this research, with a goal to expand and enrich students understanding of diversity and its benefits.”

In her human rights mission with the Xukurú, Mikulak continues to work closely with Xukurú Chief Marcos Xukurú (Xukurú chiefs use the tribe’s name as their last name). Her work there is part of her ongoing social-action research with Marcos, other tribal leaders, and several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to develop clear guidelines for identifying culturally important human rights abuses experienced by the Xukurú.

“There is a long, documented history of human rights abuses against the Xukurú,” Mikulak said.

Since 2003, over 35 criminal charges have been pressed against Xukurú leaders including Chief Marcos Xukuru (Amnesty International 2005c). The accusations against them are based on their status as leaders and no evidence was presented to demonstrate individual responsibility for specific actions.

Amnety International's Statement on the killings in Brazil

University Faculty Lecture Series presentation

Mikulak recently presented an overview of her work with the Xukurú as part of the UND 2010-2011 University Faculty Lecture Series. Titled “Successful Activism: How the Xukurú Peoples of Brazil Countered Nation-State Violence to Regain Dignity and Constitutional Rights,” Mikulak’s lecture addressed her fieldwork in Brazil.

Mikulak’s fieldwork crosses the border of Brazil to her home in Grand Forks.

While she was making important progress in Brazil, she was simultaneously helping UND students make discoveries of their own. Mikulak recently mentored students (from her field site in Brazil while on developmental leave) who taught a course through the Honors Program titled, “Indigenous Human Rights: Local to Global” (HON 392).

New field school program at UND

Mikulak, who also works with the Grand Forks Community Violence Intervention Center, said her work in Brazil will be part of a new field-school program she’s starting in the UND Anthropology Department. The field-school will be open to all students from a variety of disciplines who seek to experience international human rights work.

UND also is home to the Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies

About the American Anthropological Association’s Committee for Human Rights

The Committee on Human Rights is a permanent committee of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the largest professional association of anthropologists in the world.

Its purposes are to stimulate informed involvement in the area of human rights among professional anthropologists, and to bring before the Association’s leadership information on urgent, anthropologically-relevant cases of potential human rights abuse.

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