The UNM Foundation: Our Stories of Impact

Spotlight on Human Rights

New Mexico’s indigenous people inspire Albuquerque couple to support cross-collaboration at UNM
By Michelle G. McRuiz

As a graduate student in UNM’s Anthropology department, Robert (Bob) K. Hitchcock (MA ’77, PhD ’82) and his colleagues applied for a National Science Foundation grant that would put them to work in southern Africa. They received the grant, and Bob and his wife, Melinda C. Kelly, became part of the UNM Kalahari Project from 1975 to 1976. It was a life-changing experience. 

“We ended up spending about a year doing field work, and then I spent seven years there doing government work in land rights,” says Bob, currently an adjunct Anthropology professor at UNM.

During the project, the UNM team studied how a large-scale land reform program would affect people living in the eastern Kalahari region. The team’s report captured the attention of the Botswanan government, as well as that of international agencies. Bob continued working in the Kalahari, studying the government’s land and livestock programs.

“I got involved in consulting work that was aimed at helping various communities affected by development projects, such as dams, agriculture, and protected areas,” Bob says.

In all, he did ethnographic research and human rights work for the San (Bushmen) people of southern Africa – particularly in Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe – for almost 50 years.

“The San were wonderful to work with,” Bob says. “They taught me and many other anthropologists numerous lessons: humility, willingness to share, egalitarian lifestyles, gender equity, respect for the land, fascinating Indigenous knowledge, kind treatment of their children, conflict resolution mechanisms and desire for peace, and deep respect for each other.”

Melinda’s many contributions to the Kalahari Project included research, ethnographic interviews, report writing, grant accounting, collecting and analyzing artifacts, and campfire cooking in the field. After the project concluded, she returned to the U.S. and launched a 36-year career as a travel agent in Albuquerque and Taos.

Together, Bob and Melinda helped Indigenous Africans – who practice subsistence hunting, gathering, and farming – cope with massive changes brought by the modern world. They also worked to advance Indigenous rights, alleviate poverty, and manage resources.

Bob and Melinda’s long and tireless efforts ultimately led to the the establishment of The Hitchcock-Kelly Fund for Human and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights. They intend for the fund to support collaborative projects, programs, research, and activities between UNM’s Anthropology and Native American Studies departments.

“The Anthropology program is strong and well-known,” Melinda says. “It would be useful for them to work with the growing Native American Studies program.”

Their idea to make a gift to UNM began germinating years ago. When Bob and Melinda resettled in Albuquerque, they saw the land and its people with a fresh perspective – and sensed the potential for interdepartmental collaboration at UNM that could impact people’s lives.

When Bob taught a class on Indigenous peoples’ rights in the Anthropology department, “half of the people in the class were Native themselves, and they were really keen on the idea of learning human rights and seeing them promoted in New Mexico,” he says. “That influenced my thinking about the gift. New Mexico is a great place to do these programs, and it seemed like an exciting opportunity.

“All the Anthropology faculty are anxious to do this,” he continues. “Interdisciplinary programs are hard to bring together and manage – that’s something we would want to see be done.”

Melinda adds, “To some extent, we’ve put this fund into the hands of the departments. We want them to find ways to collaborate that will be interesting for them and help both departments.”

One idea is to hold a conference on Indigenous rights. Bob and Melinda would like the conference to include experts from other places such as Australia, Africa, and Latin America. “There are many progressive, exciting things happening there that could be useful in the U.S.,” says Melinda. “We want to learn lessons from things being done outside the U.S. that could be done here.”

Just a few of the obstacles facing Indigenous people in New Mexico are discrimination in employment and education, poverty, and misconceptions about the benefits Native people have. “Many people think [Native Americans] get all these educational benefits, and a lot of them don’t,” Bob says. “But a lot of positive things are happening. It’s an exciting time to be in New Mexico and in the States.”

The Hitchcock-Kelly Fund is a culmination representing decades of the donors’ experience, vision, and generosity. But it is also a new beginning. Bob and Melinda have provided the funding to give two UNM departments a remarkable ability to enact exciting and lasting change.

“What a pleasure it is to work with UNM and these two departments and see some cross-disciplinary things happening,” says Bob. “Because we’ve both been committed to Indigenous rights in southern Africa, we thought it would be good to promote Indigenous rights here.”

Stories of ImpactSpotlight on Human Rights