Dr. Rupa K. Marya is a physician, folk artist, musical storyteller, and activist. She works at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF), on the teaching faculty and as a practicing physician. Her research interest is the intersection of social structures and illness, especially issues affecting the health of people at the margins of society.
After studying biology and theater at the University of California-San Diego, Dr. Marya graduated from Georgetown University School of Medicine in 2002. She was a prime architect behind the Do No Harm Coalition, founded at UCSF in response to police violence. The group, made up of of medical professionals with the participation of students, has held actions, demonstrations, and teach-ins.
Dr. Marya is also an accomplished composer, singer, and guitarist who fronts the group Rupa & the April Fishes. The band has toured in twenty-eight countries and performs global alternative music with lyrics in French, Spanish, and English. It blends aspects of street music, Latin grooves, Indian ragas, and Romani soul, in musical styles ranging from punk to jazz to reggae.
In 2013, Dr. Marya went to court challenging the copyright on “Happy Birthday to You,” arguing that the song had become a public domain work. In September 2015, a U.S. District Court judge agreed, and “Happy Birthday” was freed from the royalties of Warner/Chappell Music, which reportedly was collecting around $2 million a year since 1988.
A committed human rights activist, Dr. Marya has spent some time in recent months at the Standing Rock encampment in North Dakota, and is helping to open a longstanding free integrative health-care clinic on the reservation. The Mni Wiconi Health Clinic is a partnership between UCSF, the Standing Rock Sioux tribal healers, and other organizations. The goal is for it to remain even after the pipeline protesters depart.
Dr. Marya lives in the East Bay with her three-year-old son and her husband, Benjamin Fahrer, an organic farmer. Our interview was conducted via email.
Q: What was the mood like at Standing Rock on your most recent visit?
Rupa Marya: I have been out there twice now, once in mid-September and then six weeks later. What strikes me is the beauty and peace of the gathering there, the historic significance and international nature of it, with hundreds of indigenous tribes represented as well as people from all over the world.
This past visit, the bright work lights of the pipeline construction site were illuminated, casting a glow over the camp. You can see the pipeline right there, on treaty land, and the bulldozers right there, digging up burial sites and a historic village as they barrel their way to the river. There’s a heaviness there in the people who are being retraumatized by, as one indigenous woman put it, “white militarized policemen shooting rubber bullets and beating mostly brown native bodies.” I met descendants of survivors from Wounded Knee. The thick sense of historical trauma is palpable, as is the resilience of a people.
Q: Do you think the Standing Rock protest has altered coalition building and organizing in other movements?
Marya: Standing Rock is led by and shaped by indigenous leadership, often through processes that are foreign to how social justice groups or environmental groups work. I am thinking about the place of prayer and ceremony in this movement, and how the attitudes at Standing Rock are shaping my own understanding of my relationship to the natural world, what is off-balance and injured in my own colonial mentality. There is an entirety of vision that can often elude social justice movements, a grounding of purpose which I feel a great amount of respect for. It inspires me to look inward to how I organize, how I follow, how I lead, how I move.
It also is helping me envision how the refineries in the Bay Area can be shut down, the pipelines shut down, and the water reclaimed for the health of the salmon, the beavers, the birds, and the rest of us. And it is helping me see local issues around indigenous sovereignty as part of the same greater problem. The proposed destruction of the oldest Ohlone shellmound in Berkeley and the destruction of the burial site or village site at Mission Peak by the East Bay Regional Park District are part of the same legacy of cultural genocide that we are witnessing at Standing Rock. These actions have a real impact on the people from these cultures who are still here, and consequently on all of us.
It has always struck me as odd that in the United States we learn so much about the Nazi occupation and Holocaust in Europe. But we never discuss the genocide of the indigenous people who inhabited this land for thousands of years in ecological balance, how it was systematically carried out and how it still impacts the health and lives of these people today. Without this critical lens, it becomes easier to fail to see the incredible historic significance of what is happening at Standing Rock and why it deserves our attention.
Q: How can people best support the Standing Rock action from afar?
Marya: They can disrupt business as usual, like staging a demonstration outside the banks that are funding the project. Wells Fargo is a major funder. They can disrupt work at the local Army Corps of Engineers office to demand the Lakota Dakota sovereignty be respected. They can raise money to help the camps winterize, to pay for medical items and for legal funds for people getting corralled by the police. They can harass the White House to demand that Obama step in now before Trump hits the Oval Office. And they can seek counsel from indigenous leadership in their own communities.
Q: What sort of progress is being made to provide Standing Rock activists with full medical care?
Marya: There is an incredible amount of organization happening at the camps through the Standing Rock Medic & Healer Council. They are coordinating a huge influx of volunteers in various health modalities, as well as supplies and donations. There are tents providing basic first aid. But several people there are not from federally recognized tribes and cannot access the Indian Health Service programs available at the closest hospital, a twelve-bed unit in Fort Yates. There’s a real gap in what’s accessible beyond basic services at this point.
Q: How can the medical establishment become more socially responsible?
Marya: In order to be truly socially responsible, medicine must be removed from the for-profit sector and insurance companies must be abolished. Putting profit into these spaces makes it ethically at odds with itself. I also feel medicine must be more broadly defined and health workers need to develop literacy and skills in advocacy around the social causes of diseases. I think the body can be viewed as a map of society’s illness. These social illnesses need to be addressed as such. Until then, we are offering bandage solutions without really stopping the hemorrhaging.
Q: Are there other groups like the Do No Harm Coalition around the nation?
Marya: There are several programs starting to implement training in structural competency and social medicine. It is an exciting time to be a physician because we are seeing a blending of work that has been happening for a while in public health and health advocacy into the clinical space of physicians and other health workers. I speak from the perspective of a physician because that is what my training is, but I see this as applicable to all other health workers—nurses, dentists, physical therapists, midwives, et cetera.
Q: Have you been surprised that the University of California-San Francisco has embraced your proposals to broaden the purview of how a medical establishment can serve the community?
Marya: No. It totally fits their mission of supporting human dignity and diversity. When we proposed the partnership of the Mni Wiconi Health Clinic and our development of a curriculum around the practice of decolonized medicine, the deans and vice chancellor were very excited. It is putting the values of the institution into practice. UCSF has developed a Global Health Group that has done incredible work around the world, in Uganda, fighting Ebola in West Africa, responding to the crisis in Haiti. Creating an integrative clinic to help structurally vulnerable people standing up for their rights to clean water is a natural fit for the work we do.
Q: Can you explain why you feel health professionals have a duty to shine light on the public health consequences of police violence?
Marya: Because patients are getting executed in an extrajudicial manner by the state. And most of those people are disproportionately the most vulnerable in our population—often mentally ill, most often black or Native American.
Q: What is your ideal of a more humane, just, visionary medical profession?
Marya: One that takes the self-care of the health workers into account. One where we don’t wear ourselves down paying back debt, where anyone who has a healing impulse can get the training they need to pursue fulfilling work in healing. One where the word “healing” is common and central to the work, where our role as community glue is restored, and where our ties to the people we serve are more authentic. One where we cultivate empathy and open-mindedness, and seek to understand others’ views on health, wellness, and medicine instead of imposing our own on them. One where we use all of our faculties to engage disease and imbalance where we see it, whether it’s in the streets, in our economic system, or in an organ system.
Q: What are we to make of the victory of President-elect Trump?
Mayra: Trump won because he is speaking to income inequality, even if he is a billionaire and likely to do nothing about it. He spoke to the heart of concerns for the discomfort of the middle class who have seen a worsening standard of living over the past fifty years as wealth has accumulated into the hands of the 1 percent. Bernie Sanders was speaking to the same thing, but from an internationalist and ecumenical perspective, not a xenophobic, misogynist, and bigoted vantage point.
This income inequality is happening all over the world, thanks to neoliberal policies that have been proliferated by the Clintons, the Bushes, and under Obama. Republican or Democrat, both parties have been directly involved in this ongoing widening of wealth disparity. So our work is to speak to these widening disparities under capitalism and to challenge ourselves to deconstruct the entities that create and recreate income inequality.
I see these economic issues as underpinning other elements, which we must remain vocal and vigilant about. Without addressing the underlying economic structures in addressing civil rights and human rights, I feel we will be providing short-term solutions instead of shifting the very ways we interact as a society.
David Kupfer is a Northern California writer whose work has appeared in The Sun, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, and Whole Earth. He has written for The Progressive since 1993.