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Knowing Mirna Cunningham

Ms. Cunningham Kain is an Indigenous Miskita woman from the community of Waspam, located on the banks of the Wangki River in Nicaragua. After studying as a Primary Education Teacher, she went back to Waspam to work as a teacher. She left her community once again to study medicine and surgery at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua, becoming the first female Miskita doctor. She returned to work in the Missionary Hospital of the Moravian Church as a general practitioner and later as a surgeon, work that she combined with the public health of the communities near the Coco River until 1979.

With the victory of the Sandinista Revolution, she began work in the Ministry of Public Health, assuming different responsibilities as director of research and planning, among others. Nevertheless, when the armed conflict began Ms. Cunningham Kain once again returned to Waspam as a community health organizer, and later, to become the first female Miskita governor of the autonomous region’s regional government. As governor she played an important role in the consultation process on the autonomy of the multi-ethnic region and the negotiation of peace agreements that resulted in the approval of the Law of Autonomy of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities from the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (1987) and the establishment of the first autonomous regional governments.

She also served as Deputy of the Autonomous Region of the North Atlantic Coast (RAAN) in the National Assembly as well as the Autonomous Regional Council of the RAAN. In this position, she assumed new responsibilities in the Indigenous Parliament of the Americas, the Indigenous Commission in the Latin American Parliament, the Committees on Women and Ethnic Affairs, and National Assembly committees on health and legal affairs of the Autonomous Regional Council of the RAAN. At this time, the first set of regulations for the institutionalization of a multi-ethnic regional system in Nicaragua were defined.

In the 90’s, Ms. Cunningham Kain became the founding director of the newly established University of the Autonomous Regions of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, otherwise known as URACCAN. URACCAN was one of the first Latin American institutions of indigenous and intercultural higher education with a focus on gender, and has been an inspiration for many Indigenous peoples around the continent. The pursuit of educational paradigms that seek to secure the recognition of the wisdom and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples is a task that Ms. Cunningham Kain pioneered not only through her post at URACCAN but also as the establishment coordinator of the Regional Autonomous Education System (SEAR) in the Autonomous Regions in Nicaragua and as the Itinerant Indigenous Chair of the Intercultural Indigenous University (UII), which promotes the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Ms. Cunningham Kain has also served as the coordinator of the Intercultural Indigenous Council (CII), formed by 60 indigenous scholars from 18 Latin American countries. The CII is a course that forms part of the curriculum for postgraduate study offered by UII in the 25 academic partner centers, and to provide information, analysis, conceptual and methodological contributions to knowledge, spirituality, world view, rights and processes of the struggle of Indigenous peoples. The CII presents Indigenous knowledge from the most relevant experiences of Indigenous scholars, and from a conceptual and practical vision organized didactically in order to facilitate the use of conceptual, procedural, attitudinal and spiritual content. Its purpose is to supplement postgraduate courses conceptually, politically, spiritually and philosophically. It utilizes the CII’s position in the Network of Universities of the UII to raise awareness of Indigenous issues within the university community and school governing bodies. There is also an exchange between organizations and local Indigenous communities.

Ms. Cunningham Kain has extensive experience on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. She has been Secretary General of the Indigenous Inter-American Institute and has worked as a consultant to various multilateral, bilateral, governmental and nongovernmental organizations on health, education, land, environment and natural resources, racial discrimination, evaluation mechanisms and international human rights instruments on Indigenous Peoples, among others. She coordinated the Continental Campaign of 500 Years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance in 1992 and in recent decades has been an activist for individual and collective rights of women and men in the Indigenous communities in her country, the OAS and the UN. Ms. Cunningham Kain has also worked with international cooperation agencies in the search for philanthropy and foreign aid work that respects the culture of Indigenous Peoples.

She has worked in issues of intercultural health and traditional medicine, and continues to collaborate with Nicaragua’s Autonomous Regional Governments in establishing Intercultural Health models. The Pan American Health Organization recognized her work by naming her “Hero of Health in the Americas” in 2001. She has been an activist for the rights of Indigenous Women in diverse areas in Nicaragua, as well as on continental and global levels.

On the global level, Ms. Cunningham Kain is a member of the Board of Directors of the Global Fund for Women. She serves as an Advisor to three international Indigenous groups: the Alliance of Indigenous Women of Mexico and Central America, the Continental Network of Indigenous Women and the International Indigenous Women’s Forum (FIMI). In that capacity, she has studied the various forms of discrimination against Indigenous women and has promoted the establishment of strategies and programs that facilitate Indigenous women’s access to education at all levels, including higher education. Ms. Cunningham Kain is President of the Center for Autonomy and Development of Indigenous Peoples (CADPI), which is an organization working in areas of intercultural communication, cultural revitalization, Indigenous women’s Rights and climate change and its impact on Indigenous communities. She also established the observatory of multi-ethnic regional autonomy in Nicaragua, which functions as part of a network of partner institutions and Indigenous researchers from Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Center has released several publications that reflect the results of past experiences, collective debates, dreams, aspirations and hopes of Indigenous youth, women and men, and the steps being taken to establish multiethnic and cultural societies in the region.

In September 2010, Ms. Cunningham Kain was awarded with an Honorary Doctorate by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), thereby becoming the first Indigenous woman to receive such recognition from the UNAM.

Dr. Mirna Cunningham was recently named Chair of the UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues for the period 2011-2013.

As an Indigenous woman Ms. Cunningham Kain acknowledges the collective contributions of previous generations in her training and experience, and especially her family, parents, sisters, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews and grandchildren.

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