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Youth emerges to its own battle: A conversation with Suzan Shown Harjo

Suzan Shown Harjo's two children are Adriane Shown Harjo and Duke Ray Harjo II. Adriane is an artist living in Washington D.C. Duke is a computer designer and programmer in Portland, Ore.

"Growing up in southeast Washington, D.C., they didn't have white people beating them up," said Harjo. "Had they been living in Oklahoma, they may have been subjected to some of it."

Harjo was born in 1945. She spent her first 11 years growing up on the reservation in Oklahoma in a modest farmhouse without indoor plumbing or electricity.

Her children did not grow up with signs saying "No Indians or dogs allowed." The degree of immediate threat was different for her children, but they did grow up with what Harjo called "white-gloved racism."

"It's harder to detect," she said. "It doesn't leave finger prints."

But it's seen in the modern Washington schools where her son's history teacher taught the only races on the earth today are white, yellow and black.

Harjo's father, Freeland Edward Douglas worked with NATO in the U.S. Army. When Harjo was 12-years-old, the family was stationed in Naples, Italy, where the sense of neighborhoods who knew each other for generations was similar to the connectedness on the Oklahoma reservation where she was born.

"It was fabulous," she said. "I was not socialized to be oppressed. But when I went back to Oklahoma and saw my cousins, who grew up strong and scrappy like me, they were stoop-shouldered, their heads were down. They had learned to be oppressed."

The self-esteem is broken during the critical years, she said, when youth want acceptance. When what they hear from the outside world is, "you're no good or you're just a mascot," it takes a toll.

"I was lucky I was able to escape that in my critical years," she said.

In the spirit of her grandfather, Chief Bull Bear, leader in the Cheyenne resistance against government oppression in the late 1800s, Harjo is determined to carry on the legacy of strength.

She became a Dartmouth College Montgomery Fellow in 1992, a Stanford University Visiting Mentor in 1996, the first American Indian honored by Stanford's Haas Center for Public Policy and the first chosen for the Montgomery Fellowship Award. She's lectured across the nation, served as special assistant for Indian legislation in the Carter Administration and was the main author of the 1979 President's Report to Congress on American Indian Religious Freedom.

As a youth, Harjo was chosen by her school to take a trip to Washington, D.C. when her mother, Susie Rozetta Eades, said she should go because "she talks good and is not afraid of anyone."

"Those are powerful resume items to have in your head when you're a kid," she said. "That's the power of ceremony, when we're given, if not a new name, a new way of being as we become a different person."

The emergence ceremonies are important for youth, she said. They need to be told by elders what they need as they go into the next phase of life.

"We don't have enough cultural and traditional for transitional times," she said. "And we need to include the girls. It's essential we include the girls."

Traditionally, the people were given another name when they went through a different time in their life.

"It's a good practice to bring back," Harjo said.

The tradition was lost when white people kept records on Indians from the 1880s through the 1930s. Carrying sacred objects or participating in any activity that was "anti-progressive" was prohibited. The transitional names were not allowed except in movies when a stage name could be used.

"That's a long time, many generations," Harjo said. "Changes have been slow, subtle."

Every generation has to continue the same battles, she said.

"The next generation is going to be confronted with situations more like the initial encounter period," she said. "They'll deal with more and more virulent diseases, some never known here, some known in the past. They'll deal with great conditions of drought."

The next generation needs to learn how to grow and store their own food. They need to know where to go and how to get there and how to find water. Water is the one thing they cannot do without, she said.