ISHR Event: Honoring Indigenous Women at Columbia University

By Megan Baker, student at Columbia College

From left to right, Otilia Lux De Coti, awardee, Myrna Cunningham and Tarcila Rivera Zea

From left to right, Otilia Lux De Coti, awardee, Myrna Cunningham and Tarcila Rivera Zea

On May 24, 2013, the Foro Internacional de Mujeres Indigenas (International Indigenous Women’s Forum), or FIMI, honored two indigenous women, an elder and a youth, with the 2013 FIMI Leadership Award at the “Honoring Indigenous Women’s Visions and Creativity” awards ceremony held at Deutsches Haus at Columbia University. The awards ceremony was hosted by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program in partnership with FIMI. This award marked these women’s demonstrated exceptional leadership and the impact they have had in their communities, countries and at the international level defending and advocating for human rights.

The first to be honored was Myrna Cunningham, an indigenous Miskita woman from the community of Waspam in Nicaragua. Ms. Cunningham began her career as a primary education teacher, but left her community to study medicine and surgery. She became the first female Miskita doctor and worked for the Ministry of Public Health, but following the armed conflict in the late 1970’s, she returned to Waspam as a community health organizer. Ms. Cunningham also later became the first female Miskita governor in the autonomous region’s regional government. In the 1990’s, she founded and served as the director of the University of the Autonomous Region of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, also known as URACCAN, which sought to facilitate a intercultural university community for indigenous peoples and ethnic communities. Today, she is the current Member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and its Chairperson in 2012, and the President of the Center for the Autonomous Development of Indigenous Peoples (CADPI) in Nicaragua.

Awardee, Mphatheleni Makaulule

Awardee, Mphatheleni Makaulule

The second indigenous woman to be honored was Mphatheleni Makaulule, a South African indigenous leader recognized for her work in the VhaVenda region of South Africa. There, she works alongside other indigenous women leaders called Makhadzis in a group called Dzomo la Mupo. These women leaders are custodians of the sacred natural sites and the traditional knowledge regarding seeds and soils. Together, they have been working to secure food sovereignty through the recuperation of local seed varieties and the rituals in which particular plants are used.  In addition, they stand up against threats to their land and culture, such as mining projects in the region. The knowledge of the Mikhadzis is crucial in maintaining environmental stability in the VhaVenda region.

This awards ceremony marked the conclusion of FIMI’s and Columbia’s “Indigenous Women Leaders at Columbia University, a two-day seminar,” which was hosted by ISHR’s Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program at Columbia’s Deutsches Haus, May 15 -16, 2013. Participants of the seminar are a part of the first annual Global Leadership School of Indigenous Women of FIMI, which also includes online and in-person classes and attendance at the annual session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The women of the Global Leadership School come from indigenous communities from across the globe, including Sudan, Nepal, Ecuador and Peru. This two-day seminar aimed to provide the participants with a human rights and capacity-building curriculum that will give them the opportunity to explore a broader context of human rights topics and advocacy. The lectures and discussions of the Columbia two-day workshop were conducted by Columbia faculty, Prof. Elazar Barkan, Prof. Elsa Stamatopoulou, Mr. John Washburn, Visiting Scholar, Prof. Tone Bleie,  Prof. Michael Silverman,  Prof. Amalia Cordova from New York University and UN Legal Affairs expert Ms. Anne Fosty. The lectures included topics such as “Situating human rights in International Law,” “The International Criminal Court and its relevance for indigenous peoples,” and “Ethics and compliance: the challenges of managing organizations.” The FIMI Global Leadership School, which began in February 2013, will conclude August 2013. With the success of its first year, FIMI looks forward to continued programming for the Global Leadership School and ISHR, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program and Columbia University look forward to hosting our partners and affiliates again in the future.

Megan Baker is a senior at Columbia College where she is double majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies and Ethnicity and Race on the American Indian Studies tract. She is president of Native American Heritage Month and publicity chair of the Native American Council.

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