In honor of Women's History Month ending last week, we are honoring indigenous rights activist and surgeon Dr. Myrna Cunningham, the first Miskitu doctor in Nicaragua.
Dr. Myrna Cunningham has lived a life of firsts. She was born in a Waspam community located along the Río Coco in northeastern Nicaragua. She became the first Miskutu woman to attend university, where she studied pedagogy. After teaching for several years in her community, she left again to study medicine and surgery, becoming the first Miskitu doctor in Nicaragua.
The Miskitu, or Miskito, are a multi-ethnic indigenous group with an estimated population of 700,000 people according to the Miskitu Database. The majority reside along the Atlantic coasts of Nicaragua and Honduras. By the 18th century, the Miskitu people had developed a monarchy, with the British later crowning a Miskitu Sambu (Afro-Miskito) king in 1845 to establish the kingdom as a British protectorate. The Miskitu maintained their autonomy from Spanish or Central American rule for almost 240 years, until President José Santos Zelaya annexed the region in 1894.
Today, Miskitu peoples face illegal mining and settlements on their land. Like many other indigenous land defenders across Central America, Miskutu community leaders are often the targets of violence, intimidation, and murder for speaking out.
For over 50 years, Dr. Cunningham has worked to defend the rights of indigenous populations and women's health both in Nicaragua and across the world. After the Sandinista revolution in 1979, Dr. Cunningham became the first female governor of the Waspam autonomous region. She helped negotiate peace agreements and played an important role in the creation of the Law of Autonomy of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities from the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (1987), which protects the rights of indigenous peoples and recognizes their sovereignty.
She played a major role in building her region's healthcare, judicial, and governance institutions in order to recognize and incorporate the traditional knowledge, medicine, autonomy, and cultures of over 300 indigenous communities. This work has been crucial to recognizing and integrating traditional medicine that is often disregarded in mainstream medicine.
She has also advocated for indigenous knowledge as a way to confront the environmental crisis and support public health. “Through our traditional knowledge, we have solutions for a lot of the current crises,” she stated in a recent interview. “But this knowledge and our innovations are still not taken into account. Modern science doesn't take into account that the bases of its advances in many cases lie in the knowledge that we have developed and innovated as Indigenous peoples throughout history.”
In 1994, Dr. Cunningham founded the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast, which describes itself as the first intercultural community university for indigenous peoples. In 2010, she became the first indigenous woman to receive an honorary degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). At the international level, she has served as chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and adviser to the president of the UN World Conference of Indigenous People.
Currently, Dr. Cunningham continues to work as a public health practitioner in her local community. Most recently, she has focused her concerns on strengthening the resilience and autonomy of Indigenous peoples and improving vaccine equity in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.