Suzan Shown Harjo

views updated

Suzan Shown Harjo

Suzan Shown Harjo (born 1945) is one of the leading Native American activists in the United States. She has raised public awareness about issues of concern to Native Americans by working on legislation to protect their rights, preserve their languages and traditions, reduce their high levels of poverty, alcoholism and unemployment, and safeguard their sacred lands.

Through a multitude of activities-lobbying legislators, speaking to the media, and writing numerous articles for general circulation and Native American publications-Suzan Shown Harjo has been able to exert her influence and raise the consciousness of a not-always-receptive public. Her most important activity, however, is serving as president and director of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., the oldest and largest Native American advocacy group in the country. That organization, which Harjo founded in 1984 in memory of her late husband, Frank Harjo, reminds the federal government of the treaty rights promised in return for land cessions. It also tries, in the face of constant budget cuts to get the government to honor the education, housing, and health benefits promised to Native Americans.

In addition, Harjo is a founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened its first facility in New York City in 1994. The main museum will be built in Washington, D.C. on the Capitol Mall sometime after the year 2000. To educate young Americans about Native American concerns, she helped develop "Red Thunder, " a Native American rock band, and Indian rock music videos, including "Makoce Wakan: Sacred Earth, " a special that runs often on VH-1, a music video cable station. Harjo has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live, CNN's Talkback Live, C-SPAN's Washington Journal, and many others.

The Early Years

For the first 11 years of her life, Harjo grew up on a farm in an Oklahoma reservation, much aware of her Native American heritage and the obstacles faced by her people. Like so many others on the reservation, the Harjo family was poor; their modest home was without indoor plumbing and electricity. At that time, young Suzan's idea of wealth was to be able to put ice cubes in her drinks, the way they did at the drugstore in town.

A citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, she was born with the spirit of a fighter, which her difficult early circumstances could not destroy. As a girl, she was determined to carry on the legacy of her great-grandfather, Chief Bull Bear, who was a leader in the Cheyenne resistance against government oppression during the latter half of the 1800s. Harjo also showed early literary promise, writing poetry from the time she was a young girl.

Between the ages of 12 and 16, Harjo lived with her family in Naples, Italy, where her father was stationed in the U.S. Army. Later, she told reporters that she found a familiar tribal feeling in the Italian neighborhoods where people had known each other for generations, as they had on her Oklahoma reservation.

Moving Toward Her Mission

After her return to the U.S., Harjo worked in radio and theater production in New York, where she met her husband-to-be and the father of her two children, Frank Ray Harjo. The roots of her activism date back to struggles of the mid-1960s for religious freedom and civil rights. She and her husband co-produced "Seeing Red, " a bi-weekly radio program on WBAI-FM in New York City, the first regularly-scheduled Indian news and analysis show in the United States.

In addition to her duties as a journalist, she served as the station's director of drama and literature and produced hundreds of plays and other programs for broadcast. Also while in New York, Harjo helped to found the Spiderwoman Theater Company, an improvisational group. She played various roles in repertory company productions and sang in Gilbert and Sullivan performances. But, as the years, passed, she felt a growing obligation to help Native Americans.

In 1974, Harjo moved to Washington, D.C., where she served as a legislative liaison for two law firms which were involved with Native American rights. Then, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed her a congressional liaison for Indian Affairs, a job in which she helped plan and draft legislation, including laws that would protect Indian lands and tribal governmental tax status. She also worked for the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), an organization devoted to safeguarding the rights of Native Americans.

When the 1980s ushered in a new president whose Republican agenda was far different than that of his predecessor, Harjo's activities shifted to battling proposed budget cuts in Indian programs and attempts to turn over control of tribal and federal schools to the states. She also continued to champion legal cases involving treaty rights, individual civil liberties, land claims, environmental protection, and restoring federal recognition to tribes that lost their official status as Indians as a result of the government's termination policies of the 1950s.

In 1984, Harjo returned to the NCAI, this time as the organization's executive director. Over the next six years, she provided the leadership for the NCAI's national policy activities, focusing in particular on legislative and litigation efforts and cultural concerns. She lobbied on behalf of the nation's nearly two million Indians who faced massive cuts in their federal funds during the Reagan administration. One of Harjo's biggest concerns was the decline in health clinics on reservations; poor health care led to a higher mortality rate among Native Americans, who already suffer high incidences of cancer, diabetes, suicide and alcoholism.

Morning Star

The year 1984 also marked the beginning of her role as founder and president of The Morning Star Institute. The organization focuses on protecting sacred lands and developing cultural rights policies to protect tribal names, symbols, history and music. In addition, the organization conducts programs and sponsors events in the areas of Native arts, cultural and traditional rights, youth, the environment, and leadership training. In addition, Harjo is the co-founder and vice president of Native Children's Survival, dedicated to "the healing of Mother Earth and her children."

Since the 1970s, Harjo has proven to be not only a high-profile spokesperson for Native Americans, but she also is a savvy lobbyist who has been able to deliver the goods. She has been instrumental in securing the return of one million acres, including holy lands, to the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota, Zuni, Taos, Mashantucket, and other Indian nations. She also has conducted more than 450 successful legislative efforts, including extending the amount of time a Native American can sue for damages against third parties, creating protections for Native American children, and instituting protective measures for Indian lands and tribal governmental tax status.

Battles Fought

Among the general public, Harjo may best be known for filing a lawsuit with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to stop the Washington Redskins from using that name and logo, which Harjo and six other prominent Native Americans claim is demeaning to their culture. The football franchise declared a First Amendment "free speech" defense against the lawsuit, but the trademark board agreed with Harjo that the case merited further study.

Harjo and other Native Americans were successful in stopping the University of Oklahoma from using the "Little Red" mascot and name; the Dartmouth University Indians also changed their name as a result of pressure from the group. Several colleges and high schools around the country have stopped using names and mascots that refer to American Indians. "I am really heartened [by the name changes], " Harjo told the Los Angeles Times during a 1994 interview. "That is a really good sign of America growing up and shining a light on racism."

Another area of concern for Harjo is television and movies. She has spoken out against the portrayals of Native Americans in films such as Dances With Wolves, Last of the Mohicans, and Cheyenne Autumn. She did, however, praise the characterizations of Native peoples in the television series, Northern Exposure.

"The problem with most movies is that they are still about the good-hearted, good-looking white guy, " Harjo told the Los Angeles Times. "The stories are secondarily about Indians. And they use a whole different language to refer to us." She continued, "We don't eat corn-we eat maize. We don't walk, skip, or jump-we roam. We don't have music or songs-we have chants. We don't have church services-we have rites. All that suggests we are either not here or we are so different that we don't fit in any place."

Harjo also has stood up against the federal government in a fight to allow Indians to acquire eagle feathers and body parts for use in religious ceremonies. While federal laws make it illegal to kill bald eagles because the bird is a threatened species, the laws do allow exceptions for Indians to use feathers and body parts, which they obtain from a federal repository set up to take in carcasses from eagles electrocuted by power lines, hit by automobiles or killed illegally. Under special circumstances, Indians can get permits to kill eagles. In 1997, however, an Indian man in New Mexico was prosecuted for shooting a bald eagle for a religious ceremony. Harjo spoke out, telling the government, "Stop prying. You don't need to delve into the details of this particular man's religion."

Harjo, the mother of an adult son and a daughter, has explained that her efforts are fueled by one thing: protecting the cultural heritage of her children and grandchildren. "What I do is for them, " she said. "My parents did stuff for me. We're always doing things several generations out to protect the rights of our people, through our families. That's really how I define myself. I'm a mother."

Further Reading

Malinowski, Sharon, Notable Native Americans, Gale, 1995.

North American Indian Landmarks: A Traveler's Guide, (forward by Suzan Shown Harjo) Gale, 1994.

Dallas Morning News, October 11, 1992.

Indian Country Today, September 8, 1994.

Lear's, July/August 1989.

Los Angeles Times, November 27, 1994.

Morning Star Institute, fact sheets and press releases. April 3, 1998.

Native Peoples, winter 1994.

Newsweek, Fall/Winter 1991.

New York Times, April 2, 1986.

Washington Post, November 6, 1994.

"The National Museum of the American Indian-A Promise America is Keeping-Story by Suzan Shown Harjo, " Native Peoples Magazine, (Fall 1996) (May 21, 1998).