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Xukuru sunrise

UND anthropologist/social justice advocate Marcia Mikulak extols recent decision from inter-American court as victory for Brazilian indigenous community, reflects on role in making it happen

Xukuru article 2018
UND anthroplogist Marcia Mikulak is celebrating a recent major victory in her quest to reverse injustices that have been imposed upon the indigenous Xukuru community in Brazil. (Above) UND students attending one of Mikulak’s field school opportunities become fully immersed in Xukuru culture. Image courtesy of Marcia Mikulak.

Marcia Mikulak is no stranger to putting her life on the line.

The UND professor of anthropology goes where few dare — including the tumultuous struggle of Brazil’s indigenous Xukuru Nation (pronounced shoe-ka-roo) — where violence is the accepted method to silence activists.

Her connection with the indigenous group and its leader (Cacique), Marcos Xukuru, goes back over 10 years – just as tensions with the Brazilian government came to international scrutiny.

Last month, a decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) found the Brazilian government in violation of inter-continental human rights agreements. The court has ordered the South American country to complete the return of ancestral lands to the Xukuru and to provide compensation of $1 million to the population of over 12,000 indigenous descendants. Regarded as a landmark decision, this has opened the way for native populations to challenge the absolute sovereignty of nation-states.

Mikulak’s tenacity and fortitude in the face of danger helped to turn the tide in a decades-long legal and social struggle. And it provided an opportunity to for UND research students to see – on a first-hand basis – the persecution of indigenous peoples and learn how to advocate against such abuses in a different part of the world.

Marcia Mikulak
Mikulak has spent years working on behalf of the Xukuru Nation, one of Brazil’s many indigenous groups. Recently, an inter-American court ruled that Brazil was in violation of several human rights decrees through its treatment of the Xukuru and their right to ancestral lands. Mikulak’s research and documentation was crucial to the case. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Unexpected result

Ironically, Mikulak learned of the decision through a WhatsApp message from the Cacique.

“I hadn’t talked to him in a while and out of the blue comes this text,” she said. “It was a complete and utter surprise.”

A man of few words, the Cacique sent a link to the court’s decision. When Mikulak asked if reparations were actually going to happen, or if it was just a political play, the Xukuru leader was optimistic – at least through the clapping emojis he sent in response.

Mikulak’s dubiousness about the decision stemmed from the government’s relentless efforts to sweep the Xukuru Nation, and their issues, under the humanitarian rug. When Brazil’s new democracy drafted a constitution in 1988, they guaranteed all indigenous peoples rights to their ancestral lands, but when the elites — who had owned and worked the land using cheap indigenous labor — pushed back, the government intentionally slowed the land demarcation process.

Troubled history

This all took place in the state of Pernambuco, in a town called Pesqueira. Since Portuguese colonization some 500 years ago, Pesqueira has been home to the region’s land-owning elite, who drove the Xukuru from their home to develop agricultural enterprises. The disputed lands cover a large area surrounding the town.

Cacique Marcos Xukuru
Cacique Marcos Xukuru

The Xukuru Nation is perhaps the most well-known of Brazil’s indigenous nations, due to their persistence in organizing and demonstrating against the government’s sluggishness regarding their rights. What they lacked for many years was the proper legal representation to make their case. Brazilian agencies responsible for their protection (both physical and legal) all but intentionally shirked their duties. Those who took a stand received death threats. In 1995, a lawyer representing the Xukuru was murdered.

Violence against activists is common in a land where the “powerful act against the powerless” with impunity. The Xukuru live in relative isolation and poverty across 23 villages. Cacique Xicao Xukuru, Marcos’s father, walked village to village to unite the population in learning their history and taking back their land; in 1998, he was assassinated. When Marcos became the Cacique, he too was under threat from ranchers and political enemies and survived an attempt on his life in 2003.

While being treated for injuries sustained in his escape from the attempted assassination, a riot broke out when the Xukuru found those responsible. The Cacique and 34 other Xukuru leaders were charged with instigating the violence simply because they held leadership positions within the community. No other evidence was presented, and no one was allowed to testify in their defense.

Since 1992, six people have been murdered for their role in either protecting or advancing the Xukuru cause. Many more have been injured during demonstrations.

Xukuru archival
Mikulak (left) and a group of UND students visit with Cacique Marcos Xukuru at his home in Brazil in 2015. Image courtesy of Marcia Mikulak.

Scholarship in action

Mikulak’s role in the Xukuru community went above-and-beyond that of a researcher. She went beyond any organization’s efforts to protect the Cacique by establishing a 24/7-armed protection for him when outside of native lands. At times, she found herself to be the only person between the Xukuru leader and imminent danger.

“If we were driving and stopped for gas, the armed guards would go into the store and leave the Cacique by himself,” she said. “I’d get out of the vehicle and walk around him. If they shot me, they’d be shooting an international agent.”

With proper support from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Legal Counsel for the Xukuru and the American Anthropological Association’s Committee for Human Rights (AAACfHR), Mikulak was able to construct a dossier for the AAACfHR that outlined the violations of rights faced by the Xukuru. This renewed outside pressure moved the regional court to drop all criminal charges, including the Cacique’s ten-year prison sentence for the riot.

By 2011, with Xukuru criminalization largely at bay and violence abated, Mikulak established a field school within Xukuru territory. The Cacique was enthusiastic about the idea of bringing students to their community, but he wanted to make sure it was done for the right reasons.

“He said that he wasn’t interested in having students come just to say they went to Brazil and did a few things,” Mikulak described of the leader’s outlook. “He wanted them to return from the experience saying they learned something about social justice – Xukuru history, why they’re fighting and who they are as a nation.”

She’s brought five groups of students to Brazil. One summer, she brought two Lakota students to the region to establish a connection between indigenous groups. They took part in the “assemblea,” which is an annual gathering and demonstration of thousands in support of indigenous rights. It ends with a march into the city of Pesqueira, and the students were asked to walk at the front among Xukuru leadership.

“The students could see that other people on other continents are doing exactly what they’re doing,” Mikulak said of the shared experience. “It happened before demonstrations at Standing Rock, and I always wondered if there wasn’t a tiny spark there.”

Xukuru article 2018
Thousands of the region’s citizens participate in the “assemblea” every year. In a demonstration for indigenous rights, people gather and march to the city of Pesqueira. Over a period of days, it takes the form of a convention and exchange of ideas between community leaders and activists. Image courtesy of Marcia Mikulak.

Standing vigilant

March’s decision by the IACHR is by no means a small feat, since it represents the largest victory attained by the Xukuru and Brazil’s indigenous population in decades. Remaining non-indigenous inhabitants will be relocated and compensated, which ensures the end of death threats toward the Xukuru community. The $1 million reparation payment will not only earn interest, but also be used to build a future for the Xukuru. Indigenous communities across the Americas can now realize the potential for change in their own struggles for sovereignty.

Mikulak, however, knows that the hardships and challenges are far from over.

“What’s happening now is like what we see with other movements in society,” the professor explained. “The decision will have a significant impact but only as long as the people uphold it. We must always be vigilant because democracies are fragile; they’re always as good as the people who live in them.”