UND anthropologist plays vital role in dropped charges for Brazilian indigenous tribe
by Emily Aasand, University Relations student writer
Posted on 12/3/2012
It was a huge victory for the Xukurú tribe and a University of North Dakota scholar when the Fifth Regional Tribunal in Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil decided to drastically reduce the criminal sentences of their chief and more than 40 tribal members.
In 2007, UND's Marcia Mikulak, associate professor of anthropology, began working with Chief Cacique Marcos Xukurú, the leader of the Xukurú tribe in Brazil. Mikulak also works through Amnesty International as a Brazil "country specialist" providing counsel to individuals in need of help with human rights issues within this region.
In 2003, Marcos Xukurú was the victim of an attempted assassination when two gunmen ambushed him on an isolated road. Chief Marcos survived the assassination attempt but the incident began a retaliation of two thousand Xukurú. Marcos Xukurú, who was in the hospital at the time, was charged with prompting the riot and was sentenced to 10 years and four months in prison.
More than 40 individual charges were brought against other Xukurú community leaders who petitioned for the development and support of their people's basic human rights. Mikulak drafted a human rights dossier outlining the violations by the Brazilian nation-state against the Indigenous Xukurú. The document was vetted and approved by the American Anthropological Association last year, allowing this powerful organization to take a public stand in support of the legal rights of the Xukurú.
"The petition outlined the international human rights laws that were violated by the Brazilian state at the local level within the Fifth Regional Tribunal (the equivalent of states' Supreme Courts in the United States) and what we expected the courts to do about it- which was to give the Xukurú a fair and unbiased trail," Mikulak said.
Recently, Mikulak received news that the court had decided to drop the criminal charges against all of the Xukurú, including Chief Marcos and they would be given two years of public service instead.
"I suspect that even that is going to be removed as a sentence," Mikulak said.
Mikulak is quick to share the credit of the victory for the Xukurú.
"I want to say that my work helped, but there were many people who contributed," Mikulak said. "There were nonprofit organizations, Brazilian anthropologists and sociologists, individual advocates, students, including UND students who traveled to Brazil in the Spring of 2012 to participate in a Brazil Field School, and other professors at federal universities in Brazil, who all helped."
What this means for the Xukurú
When the tribe received the news, they were elated.
"Because of this victory, the Xukurú are now able to go on with their lives," Mikulak said. "Chief Marcos will not go to prison. The tribe can start to invest their time and money in developing badly needed infrastructures they need to keep their community growing, and they'll be able to begin to grow in terms of land.
"This is a victory for the Xukurú people, but it is also a victory for all indigenous peoples in Brazil and around the world in terms of recognizing the inherent rights to land, dignity, justice and equality within the nation-states where they live. Anytime justice is rendered to first-nation peoples, the injustices of colonial history are diminished."