More Than 50 Years of Activism: A Conversation with Suzan Shown Harjo
The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) recently acquired the archive and art collection of Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee), an important American Indian activist, lobbyist, policy maker, and 2011 recipient of an IAIA Honorary Doctorate.
IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts Director Patsy Phillips (Cherokee) has known Harjo for over twenty years. When Suzan called her to inquire about donating her collection of papers and art to the Institute, Phillips was thrilled. “For decades Suzan has worked for the advancement of Native arts, cultures, and policies. She could have chosen a number of other museums or institutions to donate her collection, but she chose IAIA,” Phillips says. “Suzan is a strategic visionary which reflects in her selection to donate to IAIA where future students, scholars, and others will study her work for generations to come.”
The Suzan Shown Harjo Papers, donated to the IAIA Archives, document her work as a Native American activist, lobbyist, broadcaster, and scholar between 1965 to present. The collection contains historically valuable material, such as audio tapes from her 1960s-1970s WBAI New York radio show “Seeing Red” and will be treasure trove for researchers of 20th century Native American activism. The art collection contains around 60 pieces, many gifted by the top Native artists to her and her family. ICMN reached out to Suzan Harjo right around July 4.
You’ve been at this for over 40 years, but you are hardly ready to retire, are you?
I’ve actually been at this closer to 60 years rather than 40. Writers never retire, like generals they just fade away, but at 72 I do welcome this rest.
So how did you come to this decision to donate you and your family papers and artwork to IAIA.
My son, Duke Ray Harjo II, and I on our own behalf and on the behalf of my grandsons made a decision to offer IAIA this part of our family history, our friends history, and our hearts and minds and we both trust Patsy Phillips with the professionalism and good grace to curate the collection, which she did admirably. IAIA paid me and my family the great honor of awarding me its first honorary doctorate of humanities to a Native woman. My husband and I have been associated with IAIA since the 1960s, and Alan Parker and I worked with Dave Warren, the charter that Senator Inouye sponsored and which now governors IAIA. My husband and I had a long friendship with Allan Houser, T.C. Cannon, Fritz Scholder, Jean LaMarr, Mateo Diego Romero, David Bradley, Bob Haozous, Rick Hill, N. Scott Momaday, Richard Ray Whitman, Marcus Amerman and many other excellent talented friends.
My son and I wanted to do what we could to add to the legacy of IAIA. I love the school, I love its artists, I love its teachers, I love its museum, and it presents an extraordinary opportunity for the nation’s Native art school to emerging and seasoned artists nationwide. I also love that it has incorporated a museum studies program and I burst with pride thinking of all the times I’ve been invited to read poetry and prose at IAIA over the decades.
Your highlights reflect the high-points of Native American activism and the struggle for Native Rights, what can you say about just some of these events that are maybe more memorable or hard fought?
The treaty fishing rights struggle in the Pacific Northwest and in the Great Lakes area brought about the greatest recommitment of the United States to treaties with Native Nations in a century and I was happy to be a part of all that. I was also humbled and honored to have been a founder of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in 1967 and one of the drafters of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, repatriation and language laws, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and to help Native peoples regain over 1 million acres of land.
I am happy to have done my part to have convinced John Lennon and Yoko Ono to visit Onondaga Nation to help expose New York state’s attempted ripoff of Onondaga land for an acceleration lane to Route 81 and to have been a part of the group that wasn’t killed there when the state troopers were diverted from Onondaga to Attica. I’m also please to have spent so much time going through ceremonies in Onondaga and to have worked on so many political activities in the Northeast when I found myself in New York City in great need of ceremony prayer and people who had treaties with some of our people from so far away.
I’m also very proud of having President Jimmy Carter and Interior Secretary Andrus purchase and return to Cheyenne, Arapaho and Lakota Nations the first land from Holy Mountain (Nowawus) (Bear Butte). One of the great pleasures of my life has been working with Vine Deloria Jr., Hank Adams, Billy Frank, Oren Lyons, Audrey Shenandoah, Mad Bear Anderson, Phillip Deere, and so many other great excellent people to further Native cultural rites, to further treaty rights, to further environmental rights, and to further Nationhood. I am so grateful for all they taught me and their patience with me.
Alex, I’m also very proud to have worked with you and so many other Six Nations people on political activities, policy matters, and scribbles in various newspapers and anything that would let us get news out. When Frank Ray Harjo and I went to our first Native American Press Association meeting, we and other broadcasters could have met in a shower stall, and it’s thrilling to me to see how much our sometimes profession has grown.
As the saying goes, these are “interesting times” we live in now. What are your thoughts on the American political process right now and for the foreseeable future, also as it relates to Native American Nations?
The Trump clan make me think how uncivilized their ancestors must have been to ours, even when they thought they were the epitome of civilization, this too shall pass.
What can you say about the founding of this country and it’s relationship with Native Americans? Has it been changing and evolving or are we now going backwards or stagnating?
I think we are going forward so long as the Supreme Court doesn’t do anything else that is too squirrelly–but of course that’s a big open question, now that SCOTUS learned to spell laches.
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