GRAND FORKS -- After being held at gunpoint in Zimbabwe and caught in a civil uprising in Mali, University of North Dakota anthropologist Marcia Mikulak is known to put research ahead of her own safety. But after years of calling attention to the plight of a northeastern Brazilian tribe, she recently saw her effort save someone else.
In October, she heard the criminal sentences of a tribal leader and more than 40 tribal members had been removed after a long battle for their freedom.
"Part of me was angry, and part of me was 'Thank God, he won't go to prison and die,'" said Mikulak.
Though a researcher by profession, some of the most defining experiences in her life have been in human rights work, she said. After several years of living and working with the impoverished, they have given her more hope for humanity, she said.
"There is incredible light on this Earth," she said. "We just don't get to see most of it because we are never challenged beyond our everyday basic needs, which are always met."
A tribe in need
In 2007, Mikulak was contacted by Chief Marcos Xukuru after an attempted assassination. He is leader of the Xukuru tribe in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil. Mikulak was working then, as she is now, for the international human rights group Amnesty International as a country specialist, a volunteer who provides counsel to those in need of human rights assistance.
Xukuru told her two gunmen tried to kill him in 2003, spurring the retaliation of 2,000 tribal members. The chief was recovering from his injuries at his mother's home when the riot occurred, but he was still charged for instigating it, and sentenced to 10 years and four months in prison.
Using the clout of Amnesty International, Mikulak secured round-the-clock protection for Xukuru by networking with locals, but she did it on her own. Her organization refused to help because it felt it understood his situation and didn't feel there was an urgent need for his protection, she said.
"I said, 'I can't do this. I'm in the middle and I'm going to take the road that my conscience tells me,'" she said.
A kind of justice
She spent her sabbatical year from UND in 2009-2010 drafting a human rights dossier, backing up her claims with court transcripts and networking with the human rights committee of the American Anthropological Association, one of the largest anthropological organizations in the world, to make a case.
The dossier outlined the international human rights laws violated by the Brazilian state at the local level within the Fifth Regional Tribunal, the equivalent of a U.S. court of appeals, and how the AAA expected the courts to give the tribe a fair and unbiased trial, said Mikulak. It was approved by the AAA last year, and allowed the organization to take a public stand in support of the legal rights of the Xukuru.
"The whole point was to call international attention, to let them know that anthropologists around the world are watching you," she said.
Mikulak, along with several organizations, residents and students, flooded the Fifth Regional Tribunal's webpage with requests to drop the charges against Xukuru. She'd also personally written to the Tribunal and the Pernambuco governor. While waiting for the outcome, Mikulak continued to work on behalf of the tribe, visiting in 2009 on a UND-funded trip to document the social, economic and legal marginalization of the people.
Two months ago, the Tribunal decided to reduce Xukuru's charges to two years of public service -- she believes these will be dropped, too -- and she credits everyone's contributions to the decision.
Even though she felt it was a victory for the Xukuru, as well as all indigenous people around the world, she was initially angry. One of the gunmen was caught and found guilty of the charges, but was released after a month in prison.
Still, she said, "anytime justice is rendered to first-nation peoples, the injustices of colonial history are diminished."
Mikulak's relationship with Brazil began decades ago.
She spent five years in the country until age 8, when her father was part of the U.S. military effort to industrialize Latin America, she said. The experience moved her enough to later work with a people plagued by brutality in a country that was the last to end slavery in the Americas. It also laid the framework for her work in human rights.
Her dedication to this work has at times overwhelmed her personal life. In 1989, while conducting independent research on children in Zimbabwe, she found herself held at gunpoint and threatened with prison.
Mikulak had accidentally pulled into the driveway of the president's home, indistinguishable from other homes, and was confronted by guards. They interrogated her for two hours about why she was in the country, run then as now by the brutal Robert Mugabe.
She didn't have permission to work in Zimbabwe, the guards had taken away her passport and she wasn't working for a university then, so she had no recourse.
"I had to make an immediate decision," she said. "I decided I came there with no bad intentions, and I hadn't done anything wrong. I was going to tell the truth, and in doing so, I was eventually let free."
She learned from workers at the local international Red Cross office that she had been incredibly lucky. Some Americans were recently released after being imprisoned for five years for doing exactly what she was doing, she said.
Two years later, she found herself in the middle of a civil uprising in the West African nation of Mali, its first in 25 years. On her way back to the United States after doing some research in the country, she had to pass through the capital city of Bamako, where the democratic uprising had started.
A colleague of hers at the U.S. embassy helped her get shelter at the U.S. ambassador's house for two weeks. An estimated 200 people were killed in the streets.
"I saw people who were crying and being held and detained," she said. "That was very intense."
Although these are just a few examples of dangerous situations she has faced, Mikulak said her compassion for people has made it worth it. Years of witnessing people living under extreme poverty, violence and oppression led her to realize what it means to be alive, she said.
"What this has given me the most in life is to embrace and the horror and beauty, because if you can't see both, you can't appreciate either one," she said.