Skip to main content

A conversation with Suzan Shown Harjo

WASHINGTON - One of the earliest instructions to the Cheyenne was that the nation shall be strong as long as the hearts of the women are not on the ground.

"Women are optimists, have faith, encourage each other and their parents, their brothers, sisters and children," said Suzan Shown Harjo, president of Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C. Established in 1984 in memory of her husband, Frank, the Institute advocates rights and policies to protect sacred land, culture and environment.

For the past three decades, Harjo has been a voice for the nations. Speaking from her office in southeast Washington, D.C., Harjo reflected on the 500-year journey through Indian country. Strides have been positive, she said, and the distance still to be walked doesn't daunt her.

"There's nothing like a vision of strength to get things done," she said.

Name an issue effecting Indians and she's probably worked on it.

"Racism is everywhere, of a virulent kind," she said. "It waits just beneath the surface for assertion of Indian rights, whether land claims, religious rights, recovering of dead from museums, or preventing sports teams from using Indian symbols."

Whatever the right is, wherever there's a viable claim, we see the backlash come, she said. First seen in the east in Maine when Indians claimed two-thirds of the state, then, Rhode Island, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, it's everywhere. There's an unwillingness to admit anything was wrong with land acquisitions, she said. There's denial even in educational institutions not correcting the history taught in schools.

"The impression is that Indians are all in the west," she said. "That the racism and issues happen only in reservation border towns in the west. But Indians in the east, like everywhere, are treated as if it's OK to be Indian and do whatever they do as long as they don't step out of it."

The people are derided when they protest what was stolen, whether land, graves or identity, she said. We see the European manifest destiny mindset being played over and over again. It says, "We're prosperous and you're not and it's how God intended it."

"Genetic greed, guilt, denial of what their ancestors stole," she said. "They turn away from it. It's why we have things like Redskins teams. We see it on TV in survival shows turning people against each other. The scheming and disloyalty is reflective of what is going on in this country. It's the result of obtaining what they haven't worked for. Except it's being lived in the real country at our expense."

Harjo said the divide and conquer is not unique to Indians. It's happening everywhere, she said, noting the divisiveness among the Democratic and Republican parties.

"It's about power, about race, a force to reckon with," she said. "It won't go away by itself. That's why I work on these things."


Well known for her 1992 lawsuit initiated through Morning Star with six other American Indians against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to stop the Washington Redskins from using the name as a logo, Harjo said the dehumanized and objectified attitude gives permission to the rest of the country to justify their attitudes.

The football franchise rested its case on a First Amendment free speech defense, but in 1999 a three-judge panel canceled federal protections for the team's name because it "may disparage Native Americans and may bring them into contempt or disrepute." The decision is currently being appealed in federal district court.

Harjo was also among those who prevented the University of Oklahoma from using the "Little Red" mascot and name, caused the Dartmouth University Indians to change their name, and several colleges and high schools around the country to stop using American Indian names and mascots.

"The symbology signals the rest of America that it's OK to step on our rights, we're less than human, or dead, gone, buried, forgotten, past history like the Vikings," Harjo said. "But we're still here. There's modern evidence of our cultural continuum."

In ways that help us

Incremental steps were made in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"But you can't expect white supremacist thinking to disappear just because a right was won or some people finally understand," she said.

The assertion of Indian rights is pretty conservative, she said. We're talking about property rights, taxes, treaties and basic religious freedoms.

When she worked on the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, she went first to Barry Goldwater in 1977, "because he understood the Constitution is for everyone and treaties are the supreme law of the land" then to Ted Kennedy as the other anchor to uphold the fundamental precepts of the Constitution.

Indian rights cut across politics.

During the Red scare of the1950s McCarthyism and into the 1960s, images of Indians as communists were prevalent, when so clearly Indians have always been capitalists, she said.

"You can look at Indian history from the outside and see anything you want," she said. "But for those of us living it, we know we are something separate."

White people should heal their fractures, North Dakota, Florida, Democrats, Republicans, all that splits their people, she said.

"If that were to happen, there would be a lot less tension with other people and other countries," Harjo said.

"Splitters" continue to try to split and take control, she said. Colonization is taking place at every level. Where is the tension coming from?

"There's not enough white jobs," she said. "When they see where money is being made among Indians, they begin looking to the Indians for their own purposes. Non-Indians move in asking Indians to fund their enterprises."

When casinos are run by white people, they bring white sensibility to it, she said. We need to get more Indians into these positions, she said. We need to ask what is our tradition of dealing with this, how do we do it in a humane way, in a way that helps us.

"Giving to white entertainment is extortion," she said. "It's saying 'we'll give so you don't hurt us, so you let us continue,' How is that different from the Godfather?

"We need to find more ways to fund reservation-wide efforts to combat domestic violence, to promote a nation's values, promote peaceful resolutions within our communities."

It took a lot of forced oppression of ideals, religion, ways of being, to get it where it is today, she said.

"We need healing, traditional ways and if there aren't any, we need to talk to our neighbors who have it," she said. "Self-hatred turns us against each other.

We can't fight the whites so we turn on the nearest, usually in our own household."

(Continued in Part Two)