March 5, 2021

The Places That Inspired the Work of Poet and Activist Suzan Shown Harjo

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) is a writer, curator, and policy advocate who has developed landmark laws, led campaigns for Native rights, and helped Indigenous Peoples recover over one million acres of land. In awarding her a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor, President Barack Obama said she has “fought all her life for human, civil, and treaty rights of Native peoples…her tireless efforts have protected Native culture, returned Native lands, and improved Native lives.” Learn about her life through the places in which she has lived, worked, and fought to make a difference.

Growing Up in Oklahoma

Harjo was born in El Reno, Oklahoma, in 1945 on Cheyenne land reserved in the 1867 Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty signed by her mother’s great-grandfather, Chief Bull Bear. She also grew up on her Muscogee grandparents’ family farm on Dawes Act-allotted land near Beggs, Oklahoma. The 1887 federal Dawes Act broke up tribal treaty lands, forced individuals onto small allotments, and sold the “surplus” property to non-Indians, resulting in a Native land loss of over 100 million acres before it was stopped a half century later.

At a 2019 Smithsonian symposium, “A Promise Kept: The Inspiring Life and Works of Suzan Shown Harjo,” historian Gabrielle Tayac, Ph.D. (Piscataway) recounted that Harjo, a precocious second grader in small-town 1950s Oklahoma, argued persistently with her white teacher about the facts of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In response, the teacher referred to her using a racial epithet indicating the color of her skin and pushed her out of the classroom window (luckily a rosebush broke her fall).

Harjo was then home-schooled until age 11, when she and her younger twin brothers moved with their parents to Naples, Italy, where her father was stationed with NATO’s Allied Forces Southern Europe. She returned to Oklahoma City as a high school senior (’62), a published poet, long-distance swimming medalist, and a young woman “not socialized to be oppressed.”

A woman, Suzan Shown Harjo, sitting on the interior of the Colosseum in Rome.

photo by: Courtesy Suzan Shown Harjo

New York City and a Visit to the Museum of the American Indian

In 1964 Harjo moved to Greenwich Village and worked in journalism, theater, and broadcasting. As drama and literature director for WBAI-FM 24/7 Radio Station, she filled one-third of the station’s airtime, directing the coverage of the Saturday Night Massacre during the Watergate scandal, producing the first New York broadcast of readings by feminist poets and writings by Vietnam War veterans, and presenting original and adapted works by Samuel Beckett, Eric Bentley, and William Burroughs. Following her marriage to Frank Ray Harjo (Wotko Muscogee; 1947-1982), the pair co-produced myriad programs for WBAI, including the first regularly scheduled national Native news and culture show, "Seeing Red".

When Harjo’s parents traveled to New York City in 1965 to greet their first grandchild, she and her mother visited the Museum of the American Indian. Shocked to see mummified and dismembered human remains on display, as well as a Cheyenne girl’s buckskin dress with “a bullet hole where her belly had been”—as Harjo described it in a 1965 poem, set in what she called “the Museum of Indian Dead”—the desecrated remains figured prominently in Harjo’s dreams.

This experience, along with her mother’s entreaties to find a way to rebury ancestors and reclaim ceremonial and historical items, propelled Harjo’s mission to reform museums’ collecting and exhibiting policies nationwide, protect Native Peoples’ religious freedom, and return human remains and cultural items looted from Native sacred places.

Image of a building in New York City with a totem pole on the right side. This used to be the home of the Museum of the American Indian in 1963.

photo by: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (N30615)

The Museum of the American Indian as it would have looked when Harjo went with her mother in 1965. In 1989, the collection was nationalized as the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. The Museum’s third facility opened in 2004 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Today, NMAI also maintains a research center in Suitland, Maryland, and a permanent exhibit space in New York City at the Alexander Hamilton Custom House.

Washington, D.C.: Fighting for Native Rights and Work in Public Policy

In 1974, the Harjos relocated to Washington, D.C. to focus on advocating for Native rights. As news director of the American Indian Press Association, Harjo’s beat was national Native policy and Capitol Hill, where only three Native people worked among thousands of congressional staffers.

After directing the National Congress of American Indians’ communications and legislative activities and working on the Carter-Mondale campaign and transition, Harjo became a political appointee for the Carter Administration’s Native legislative agenda, coordinating federal agencies’ implementation of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act and authoring the 1979 President’s Report to Congress on American Indian Religious Freedom.

In 1982, Harjo’s husband Frank Ray Harjo succumbed to a five-year struggle with a debilitating illness. His friends established the Morning Star Institute (MSI) in his memory, and Suzan Harjo became its president, a position she still holds.

In 1990, she transformed MSI from a foundation to a research and advocacy organization devoted to protection of Native traditional and cultural rights. This includes fighting against the use of Native mascots and stereotypes in sports. In 2020, her work led to the Washington Football Team formally changing its name, nearly thirty years after MSI and others first filed suit. The sole parent of two children, she returned to the National Congress of American Indians as its executive director.

Two people, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee writer and advocate, Suzan Shown Harjo, and Kevin Grover, former director of NMAI  with a book for the Nation to Nation exhibition in between them.

photo by: National Archives

Kevin Gover (left), former director of the Museum of the American Indian, and Suzan Shown Harjo (right), guest curator of the Nation to Nation exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, with their exhibit catalog in 2014.

Also by 1990, fulfilling her early promises to her mother, and later to her husband, to ensure that sacred items, which are often looted, were not displayed in museums, Harjo developed and secured the passage of some of the most important federal Indian laws in history. She co-authored and led campaigns for the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the 1989 law that transferred the Museum of the American Indian’s million-object collection to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, for which she served as a founding trustee.

Harjo wrote about that arduous journey in "It Began with a Vision in a Sacred Place," her chapter in the 2011 book, "NMAI Challenges, Past, Present, and Future." She guest curated and edited the book on the exhibition, "Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations (NMAI 2014-2021)," which won the Alliance of American Museums’ 2016 Overall Award—Excellence in Exhibition. She also curated "Visions from Native America (1992)," the first exhibition of contemporary works by Native artists shown in the U.S. House and Senate Rotundas.

A smiling woman (Suzan Harjo) standing on top of a building (the National Museum of the American Indian) with the United States Capitol Building in the background.

photo by: Lucy Fowler Williams, Penn Museum

Harjo on the roof of the National Museum of the American Indian, as she and others envisioned it in 1967, with the United States Capitol in the background.

New Mexico: Poet, Advocate, Activist

Harjo often credits Native and non-Native people in New Mexico with providing support and guidance in honing her advocacy and arts work. In 1992, she convened an historic gathering of 100 wisdomkeepers, artists, and writers that produced the "Statement Toward the Next 500 Years" (Pueblo of Taos, October 1992). She lived in Santa Fe in 2004 at the School for Advanced Research, which awarded her back-to-back residencies as the Dobkin Poetry Fellow and a Summer Scholar.

Her poetry, which infuses her activism and advocacy is an inextricable part of Harjo’s identity and legacy. “Poetry appeals to me because it can have the grace of water and the focus of rock, even in the same piece, and it accommodates both facts and color in the same space.” In 2020, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Harjo was the first woman awarded the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Honorary Doctorate of Humanities (2011), the first Native woman Montgomery Fellow (1992); the first Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholar (2008); and the first person awarded two Sovereignty Symposium Medals for Leadership and as an Honored One (2015-2016). In 2015, the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity (NCORE) in American Higher Education named an annual award after her: the Suzan Shown Harjo Activist for Systemic Social Justice Award. NCAI recognized her with its Native Leadership Award; and the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums honored her with a Leadership Award and a Guardian of Cultures and Lifeways Medal.

First Lady Hillary Clinton honored her in a 1999 White House ceremony with other Native women “pathmakers…who have enriched our lives and nation and upon whose shoulders we stand today….Suzan Shown Harjo, a poet and curator who has helped Indians recover some of their most sacred lands and protect their ancient cultures.”

Peggy Mainor is the executive director of the MICA Group, a national nonprofit founded by Chief Wilma Mankiller in 2006. MICA partners with indigenous communities, governments, and foundations to build social and economic capital in Indian Country through innovative, culturally appropriate strategies.

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By: Peggy Mainor

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