A Deeper Conversation with this Year’s Oak Fellows
Fighting for Indigenous rights and the environment is a way of life for Michelle Cook and Ana Lucía Ixchíu Hernández
Indigenous rights activists Michelle Cook and Ana Lucía Ixchíu Hernández, the fall ’22 Oak Fellows, use their powerful voices to call for change in the world.
Cook, a member of the (Dineh) Navajo Nation who was born of the Honághááhnii (One Who Walks Around You) clan, is a lawyer and human rights activist.
Ixchíu, a journalist, artist, and activist, is an Indigenous K’iche woman from Totonicapán, Guatemala. She has been in exile from her homeland since March 2021, after the Guatemalan government made false accusations against her and after illegal timber harvesters attacked and beat her and her sister, a documentarian, while they were filming in the forest.
The women, both forces to be reckoned with, are using their time as Oak Fellows at Colby to rest, recharge, and spread the word that Indigenous rights are critical to the future of the world. On the occasion of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Maine, they spoke about their work. This conversation has been lightly edited.
What are Indigenous rights?
I think that first it’s necessary to define Indigenous peoples, before we understand rights. Really, Indigenous peoples, according to the United Nations and other sources, are peoples and societies that have existed prior to colonization, prior to the formation of the state. They have existed pre-contact of colonial societies, and maintain, as they have for millennia, their own language, culture, political systems, legal institutions. They have governed themselves and used their law for millennia to sustain and to create their peoples and their civilizations. Indigenous peoples are a very unique population in the world because of that pre-colonial political formation and governance. That’s who Indigenous peoples are.
Indigenous peoples, like all peoples, have the right to self-determination. And by virtue of that right, they may freely determine and pursue their economic, social, cultural, and political development.
What would you like people to know about some of the harm done by colonialism?
Colonialism is inherently a coercive and abusive system. They force, through genocide, through violence, and force through coercive control, Indigenous peoples’ will and decisions. But to me, Indigenous peoples aren’t victims, because we’ve been the ones that have been able to maintain our law, governance, and identity, despite several centuries of intergenerational abuse. The real tragedy is that the harm being done to Indigenous peoples is a harm to everyone. When they hurt us, they hurt themselves. And the fact is that Indigenous peoples are protecting the last remnants of biodiversity on the planet. And if Indigenous peoples no longer exist to protect that biodiversity, there will be no balance on earth. What befalls us, befalls you. While I am in my canoe, and you are in your ship, we share the same river of life. The harm is to us, but the harm is to all humanity. The harm is to the whole planet. They might harm our people, but they actually harm themselves, because we’re part of the same family. Colonization is a process that’s ongoing, and it’s a process of imbalances of power. And we need to stop that.
How can the Oak Institute help your work?
I think fellowships and programs like the Oak Fellowship are incredibly important, not only for Indigenous peoples, but for non-Indigenous peoples. Because it allows a space of intercultural dialogue. It is a space that is supportive of Indigenous human rights defenders. And frankly, it’s an investment in Indigenous peoples and Indigenous rights, at least this semester. It’s a landing pad and a launching point, and I’m really thankful for the opportunity. It’s an innovative program, and there should be more spaces like these available.
Can you describe the deeply connected relationship that exists for you between Indigenous people and place?
I am an Indigenous woman from Guatemala. I come from the K’iche people, and K’iche, it means many trees. We recognize the trees as our ancestors. We defend the land and we defend the human rights for all the people. … The indigenous people are on the front line of the defense of the territory. We are defending the rivers, defending the forest. … We defend the opportunity for the trees to exist, to be part of the environment. We are part of the environment. We are not the center of the environment.
As an Indigenous Guatemalan, you grew up in the shadow of a civil war that lasted from 1960 to 1996, a war that affected everyone and everything in your country. But 10 years ago this month, a terrible event happened that altered the course of your life and work. That was the October 4, 2012, “Alaska Massacre” in Guatemala, when the Guatemalan army opened fire against peaceful Indigenous demonstrators, killing seven people. How did this change you?
On that date, I understand the war, and I understand who I am, and I understand the person that I became. I understand a lot of things in that process, in that moment. That’s when I became a journalist. I became an activist. I began my work, I began a collective to denounce, in a different way, the massacre. I think the massacre was the beginning of everything in my work, in my process. For me, it’s part of my history, and part of the history of my people, the history of my town, the history of my country, and the history of extermination. Because I think the genocide and the massacre are part of the genocide and extermination of the planet. When you kill, when you massacre Indigenous communities, you are killing the environment, too.
How has art helped in the fight against injustice?
We created Festivales Solidarios, which is an Indigenous and Mestizo collective. And we create itinerant caravans to go around the country, trying to help and fight with art. We make festivals in Indigenous and Mestizo territories that are fighting against mining, against criminalization, against monoculture and things like this. We do a lot with art, with graphic design, with music, with dance, with movement. We start to see the power of art, and we try to help to heal, too. We have to give the opportunity to the Indigenous and Mestizo resistance to have joy, to have hope, to fight. … If I’m telling you the reality of my country right now, it’s horrible. Horrible stories every day. But I don’t want to feed the monster in that narrative, because we are more than poverty. We are more than suffering. We are more than violence. We are more than that! We are joyful people. We are multicolor, multicultural, and diverse people. We have the right to have joy, to have happiness. For me, it’s a right, like food, like water, to live in a different way. Not only to experience suffering.
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