March 1 marks the first day of Women’s History Month, and this year finds two Native women among the 16 honorees designated for 2016.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, and the late Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, Seminole, are both being honored by the National Women’s History Project, a nonprofit educational organization founded in 1980 to bring women’s stories and contributions to the fore. The project was the force behind getting Congress to designate Women’s History Month officially. This year’s theme is “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.”
“The National Women’s History Month theme for 2016 honors women who have shaped America’s history and its future through their public service and government leadership,” the Women’s History Project website said. “Although often overlooked and undervalued, collectively they have dramatically influenced our public policy and the building of viable institutions and organizations.”
Presidential Medal of Freedom Winner Harjo is being recognized for her 50-year career working in journalism, writing poetry, curating and influencing museum exhibits and drafting policy, according to the Women’s History Project website. Among the accomplishments cited: assisting in the return of more than a million acres of tribal lands; co-producing the first Native American news-radio show in the 1960s; and getting at least one museum to return sacred garments to their rightful owners, as well as changing their policies to reflect more respect. The project also notes Harjo’s instrumental role in getting the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act passed, and her turn as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NMAI) in the 1980s.
“Throughout her career, Harjo has spoken out against negative and stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans in movies and on television,” the site says. “A leader in efforts to remove negative Native names and images from sports teams; by 2013 her public campaigns had succeeded in more than two-thirds of teams moving away from Indian mascots.”
Harjo was also recognized for founding the Morning Star Institute, which advocates for Sacred Sites and traditional cultural rights, and for being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2014.
Tiger Jumper, who walked on in 2011, was the first female Seminole chief and the first woman to hold that position in a federally recognized tribe, the Women’s History Project noted.
Entering boarding school at age 14 speaking Creek and Miccosukee but no English, Tiger Jumper “worked her entire life to better the livelihood and commemorate the traditions of her tribe,” the site said. As a nurse she brought modern medicine onto several reservations, and as a preserver of language and culture she founded the Seminole Indian News in 1961 and wrote two books.
“Betty Mae Tiger Jumper’s work not only improved the well-being of thousands, but also helped ensure the legacy of her tribe,” the Women’s History Project said.
Others on the Women’s History Project list include civil rights organizer Daisy Bates (1912–1999), who led the move to integrate of Little Rock, Arkansas, public schools in 1957; pioneering feminist Sonia Pressman Fuentes, a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the first female attorney in the Office of the General Council at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Isabel Gonzalez, who championed American citizenship for Puerto Ricans; Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso (1919-1981), the first woman elected in the U.S. to that office; U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), for being the longest-serving woman in Congress, and astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, chief of astronomy at NASA. A full list of honorees is at the National Women’s History Project, with a separate site holding overall information about Women’s History Month.
“Each of these public leaders succeeded against great odds,” the Women’s History Project said. “The diversity of their experiences demonstrates both the challenges and the opportunities women in public service have faced. Their ability to use the art of collaboration to create inclusive solutions and non-partisan policies, as well as their skill and determination, serve to inspire future generations. The tenacity of each Honoree underlines the fact that women from all cultural backgrounds in all levels of public service and government are essential in the continuing work of forming a more perfect union.”