A conversation with Suzan Shown Harjo

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People to be celebrated

In the spirit of her ancestors, Suzan Shown Harjo was determined to carry on the legacy of strength and tradition. Her great-grandfather, Chief Bull Bear, was the first signatory to the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty of 1867 and leader in the Cheyenne resistance against government oppression in the late 1800s.

Her grandfather, Thunderbird (Richard Davis), an artist and writer, is credited with preserving valuable ceremonial information at a time when the Sun Dance and other Cheyenne ceremonies were outlawed.

Her grandmother, Susie Rozetta Eades Douglas, Cheyenne and Pawnee, from El Reno, Okla., is the inspiration for Harjo's fight for the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, sacred places protection and repatriation laws.

Harjo said white people once had the knowledge too. It's still found in Ireland, Sicily, Scotland, in every country, scattered among small groups who still know their tribal ways even after the wars of de-culturization. There are still people who know their ancient ways, the keepers of wisdom.

"There's not a continent that does not have a people," Harjo said. "It promoted survival over thousands of years despite attempts to homogenize."

These are the people to be celebrated, she said.

The first Europeans to come and take root in the North American continent were the criminals, outcasts and the unwanted.

"How bad was it that their best option in life was to take a trip with the possibility they'd fall off the earth," Harjo said. "No wonder what happens, happens."

No wonder so much reflects President Ronald Reagan's attitude of "God intended this for us" when he stated, "the Indians are too greedy to share it."

Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, said she values both ancestries.

"Each is different," she said. "I understand the difference on a daily basis. I am privileged to be both."

A voice rises

Nothing has changed regarding the violence in Indian country in 500 years. Statistics collected since 1960 show that violent assaults tend to be perpetuated within the same race, white on white, black on black, Asian on Asian. But for American Indians, the majority of violence is committed by white men against Indians, including domestic violence, rape, stalking, and assault of Indian women.

"It's acting it out the psychosis of their own history," Harjo said.

For Indians, six of every 10 violent crimes against them are committed by white people.

"Since rape and sexual assaults are the least-reported crimes generally, the numbers, as high as they are, are low," Harjo said. "There's still a stigma among Indian women about rape and other sexual victimization crimes."

But no matter how you slice a society, it's race against their own race, Harjo said. It's unique to American crime statistics for people of a race to commit violence against another race.

"That's got to be looked at," Harjo said. "It's got to be stopped. We've got to ask how much of it is an Indian problem."

What is needed most is strengthening of our own communities, she said. Especially Native women, households and children. It has to be a priority of every Indian nation.

"And let the white community know they have no right to do it," she said.

In the past three decades Harjo has seen more and more Indians stand up and say "enough is enough. You don't get to say that any more, or this conversation is over until you learn not to behave that way."

"That didn't happen when I was growing up," she said. "We still get today the de-sensitized Indians who say 'don't pay attention to it' but more and more we won't endure it."

Fear of past incidents, laws and oppression linger still in Indian country. "It's still dangerous," she said. "The roads are long and isolated in a lot of Indian country."

The courthouse door

Harjo moved to Washington, D.C. in 1974 to work as a legislative liaison for two law firms involved in American Indian rights. In 1978 President Carter appointed her as Congressional liaison for Indian Affairs where she helped draft legislation, some of which protected Indian lands and tribal governmental tax status. She also worked for the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), an organization that protects Indian rights.

By the 1980s, a Republican agenda shifted the climate and Harjo responded to battle proposed budget cuts to Indian programs and attempts government attempts to turn control of tribal and federal schools over to the states. She championed treaty rights, civil liberties, land claims, environmental protection and restoration of federal recognition to tribes that lost their status in the termination policies of the 1950s.

In 1984, she returned to NCAI as its executive director. During the next six years she led the organization's national policy activities. During Reagan's administration she lobbied for the nearly 2 million Indians who faced cuts to their reservations. She worked to increase resources for reservation health clinics and decrease the high mortality rates.

Her efforts helped Native peoples recover more than one million acres of land and numerous sacred places.

Harjo was behind the development of the 1996 Executive Order on Indian Sacred Sites, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act, and the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Laws are like nature, she said. They must go through their process to become what they need to be.

"A lot of laws passed, a lot happened because of the Religious Freedom Act," Harjo said. "But we need follow-up laws."

Museums had been returning belongings before repatriation laws were passed, "but at some point it becomes too slow."

It took from 1978 to 1989 to get museums to return artifacts and ancestors to the nations. Eleven months later it was nationalized into NAGPRA.

The Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 and NAGPRA in 1990 are great policy statements, she said, but they need muscle.

That muscle is being drafted now in a bill that allows course of action to take a sacred or ceremonial site into the courts. It's been worked on since 1967 to get laws to protect sacred sites. During Clinton's eight-year administration it was refused.

Under the Bush administration, the bill has been through three Senate Indian Affair Committee oversight hearings since last year.

"Maybe this president will follow his father's example when he signed NAGPRA into law," said Harjo.

(Continued in Part Three)