UND grad Shayla Longie shares lessons learned from the Xukurú tribe in Brazil
During my senior year at the University of North Dakota, I was one of the few Anthropology majors who hadn't completed any field work. By chance I saw the flier for the Xukurú field school and I immediately jumped on board. Nearly one year ago, two other students and I were granted the opportunity to study abroad in Brazil as part of Dr. Marcia Mikulak's Brazil Field School, living and working alongside the Xukurú (pronounced shoo-Koo'-roo) Indians of Pernambuco. While I can't speak for the other students, I can honestly say the three weeks I spent abroad with the Xukurú changed my life forever.
The Xukurú community is like no other. Immediately we outsiders were accepted and welcomed in with open arms, minds, and hearts. Everybody we met was eager to invite us into their homes and teach us about their way of life. At the heart of it all was the tribe's leader, Cacique Marcos Xukurú. Cacique Marcos has got to be one of the most influential and inspiring people I've ever met. Everything he does is for welfare of the Xukurú; in fact, he wears two wedding rings — one for the marriage to his wife and one for the marriage to his people.
The Xukurú have a long history of subjection to social injustice and political persecution; while describing their situation to others I usually compare it to the same issues Native Americans faced in this country following European settlement. What I find extraordinary about the Xukurú is what they've done for themselves to overcome all the hardships they've endured. Rather than remain victims, they band together and fight for the good of their people. And what's even greater, I can use the word "they" without any worry of falsely generalizing the Xukurú because every member of that community is working toward the betterment of their tribe; the same spark can be seen and felt in each person one meets, and I think, more than anything, that the spark comes from Cacique Marcos.
The greatest thing I took home from my time in Brazil was the yearning to become involved in the world around me. In the first two weeks in Brazil, we participated in political rallies, religious ceremonies, and community wellness seminars. Being a part of such monumental events was absolutely exhilarating, and made me want to advocate in any way for these people I was beginning to know and love. When the cacique sat down and told us the complete history of his people, a history that involves so much sadness, hardship, and sacrifice — including the life of his father and the attempt on his own life — it made me feel ungrateful and complacent. But the end of his story was filled with hope as he described everything his people were working and fighting for and it made me wonder why the majority of people from my tribe, the Spirit Lake Nation, didn't seem to want to fight for themselves the way the Xukurú did.
I was fortunate enough to get some of Cacique Marcos' time and sole attention to talk to him about my own Native roots; I showed him maps and pictures of the reservation my family is from and talked to him at great length about the corruption and other negative issues the Spirit Lake people are facing. What stuck out to me the most about this conversation was his sincere confusion regarding the entire thing. He genuinely couldn't understand how members and leaders of the tribe could not only hurt each other, but why people across the reservation seemed to accept it and not unite against it. Just talking about the entire matter with him ignited that same spark inside of me and for the first time in a long time, made me feel the same pride in my heritage that the Xukurú felt in theirs. Since returning from Brazil I have had a greater interest in Spirit Lake tribal matters and I have dedicated more of my time to staying informed as well as spreading the word about important tribal issues. I also continue to closely follow the Xukurús' journey and stay connected to the people I met in Brazil as much as possible through Facebook and email.
Not only do I feel like I benefitted from the field school because I got a chance to explore a world different from the one in which I live, but because experiencing firsthand the Xukurú sense of community and social activism made me want to project their gumption and expand upon it back home. Something extraordinary happened to me while I was in Brazil, something I have trouble putting into words; the Xukurú ignited their spark in me and I will be forever grateful to Cacique Marcos and the rest of the Xukurú people for being the ones to strike the match.
Shayla Longie (Left) is joined in a field school in Brazil by Associate Professor of anthropology Marcia Mikulak (right), Elizabeth Beecroft (standing left and center), and Erin Stohler (seated). The field school sought to build better understanding and connections with the people of the Xukurú tribe in northeastern Brazil.