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Be Comfortable to Discomfort Colonialism: First event held by the Oak Institute for Human Rights

The Oak Institute for Human Rights, continuing its effort to bring prominent human rights activists to campus, held its first event at 7 p.m. on Sept. 14. Michelle Cook and Ana Lucía Ixchíu Hernández, the 2022 Oak Human Rights Fellows, shared their views and experiences about how colonialism and the formation of modern nation-state borders violate civil rights for Indigenous peoples.

Cook, the author of Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement, is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and was born of the Honághááhnii (One Who Walks Around You) Clan. She earned the title of Doctor of Juridical Science from the University of Arizona, with a dissertation on intersections of Indigenous rights, divestment, and gender in the United States.

Ixchíu is an Indigenous K’iche woman from Totonicapán, Guatemala. She is a journalist, artist, and activist with a focus on the rights of Indigenous peoples. She began her career in activism after witnessing the army of Guatemala massacre her people for demonstrating against the rise in privatized electricity, controlled by a foreign transnational corporation. She cited racist media coverage of the massacre as making her realize that it was time for her people to tell their own story.

The discussion was facilitated by Tiffany Miller, Assistant Professor of Spanish and Director of the Oak Institute.

In response to the board theme “Indigenous rights,” Ixchíu pointed out that it is not just a term quoted in journals or a topic scholars may discuss but is incorporated in her “daily life.”

Cook echoed this view, noting “human rights are supposed to be necessities of one’s life.”

Cook then pointed out the irony of the term by connecting to her experience that “now we have to learn it to protect ourselves.”

“I do not have the choice to choose a different career because of the urgency to protect our lands and our people,” Cook said.

Explaining Indigenous people’s connection to lands, she referred to the video clip guests watched at the beginning of the talk. 

“There are deeper meanings when we say ‘trees are our ancestors’ and ‘sky is our father,’” she said. Cook explained that Indigenous communities had formed “a greater spiritual universe” by noticing the sacredness inside the environment. 

“As people remembering the world before capitalism and colonization, we have a different understanding of lands, [which] could shed light on current strategies to reduce pollution and to address larger environmental concerns,” she said.

Returning to their own experiences, both panelists mentioned the challenges and discrimination they face as Indigenous women fighting for their rights.

“We have to learn ‘colonial languages’ to articulate our views; we have to be at places we know we are not welcomed; we have to be aware of resistance we may face; and we have to be comfortable to make colonization uncomfortable,” Cook said.

For participants interested in learning more about the topic, Cook and Ixchíu will have office hours at the College every Wednesday night. There is also a related reading group open to students, staff, and faculty from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. every Tuesday.

Kristen Shen ’24

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