Suzan Shown Harjo is a poet, writer, curator and advocate; she is a leader in the arts, culture and policy, and in May she will receive an honorary doctorate for a lifetime of advocacy and contributions to Native American arts and culture from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA).
“I am honored and humbled and deeply grateful,” Harjo said, who is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, in a press release announcing the honorary doctorate. “Artwork and people from IAIA have been an important point of inspiration and source of hope since I first visited and made friends there in the 1960s.”
Among Harjo’s advocacy accomplishments she helped develop a number of federal laws protecting Native sovereignty, culture, language, arts and human rights including the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which she wrote about in The American Indian Religious Freedom Act—Looking Back and Looking Forward in the Wicazo Sa Review in 2004. She was also instrumental in the passing of the 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act—required the Smithsonian to repatriate human remains, funerary and sacred objects belonging to Indian nations, Alaska Native villages, or Native Hawaiian organizations—and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
She has been executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), a Carter administration special assistant for Indian legislation, as well as a member of the Native American Policy Committee of the Barack Obama campaign and an advisor to the 2008-2009 transition.
According to IAIA, Harjo was also the first lecturer in the Vine Deloria Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholars Series at the University of Arizona in 2008, the first Native woman to receive the Montgomery Fellowship at Dartmouth College in 1992, and the first person to be awarded back-to-back fellowships as a 2004 School of Advanced Research Scholar and Poetry Fellow.
“My work in each area requires traditional, cultural and personal knowledge; understanding of the literature, history, canon or body of work; and research, analysis, strategy and inspiration. Arts, scholarship and policy exist in the same universe, although often on different planets,” Harjo said in the IAIA press release. “Artists in all these spheres make choices from myriad options before settling on just the right word, color, note or movement.”
But her list of accomplishments doesn’t end there. Harjo is a founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Her work began in 1967 and was finally realized in 2004, when NMAI opened in Washington, D.C.
“We envisioned that the museum would help educate the decision makers of today and tomorrow to reflect on the fate of the Native people whose home this once was,” Harjo wrote in a column for Indian Country Today September 18, 2004. “We envisioned that the museum would face the Capitol and stand as a reminder to the entire policy industry to support measures that enhance Native life and to oppose those that lead in any other direction.”
Harjo directed the NMAI Native Language Project and hosted the NMAI Native Writers Series for its first three seasons.
Harjo was nominated by Patsy Phillips, director of the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, who said, “She has done more for Indian country than anyone else I know. …No one is more deserving of this recognition.”
But what has inspired Harjo’s passion to achieve her many accomplishments?
“My children, grandchildren, extended family and all the coming generations are my primary motivators,” Harjo said. “I do what I do out of a duty of care for them and with respect to our ancestors.”
Harjo currently serves as the president of The Morning Star Institute, a national Native rights organization founded in 1984, and continues practicing art.
“Poetry, poetry, always poetry. Curating art and history exhibits, including on treaties between Native nations and the United States,” Harjo said. Writing family histories for my grandsons, reclaiming some of my relatives from the lost and distorted pages of history, and trying to understand exactly what happened to us and how, so that we always know the signs. Documenting our own time.”
To read some of Harjo’s poetry visit the Beltway Poetry Quarterly website.
Harjo will be presented with the honorary doctorate on May 13 during the IAIA 2011 commencement ceremony.