Suzan Shown Harjo has become known of late for her efforts to get the name of the Washington DC football team changed.
But that, contrary to what some pundits have surmised, is not why she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 24. It was what came before, from a lifetime of activism, fighting for tribal sovereignty and preservation, while inspiring American Indian youth.
“Through her work in government and as the head of the National Congress of American Indians and the Morningstar Institute, she has helped preserve a million acres of Indian land; helped develop laws preserving tribal sovereignty; she’s repatriated sacred cultural items to tribes while expanding museums that celebrate Native life,” said President Barack Obama when it came time to summarize the accomplishments of the Cheyenne-Hodulgee Muscogee poet, writer and curator of Turtle Island history. “Because of Suzan, more young Native Americans are growing up with pride in their heritage and with faith in their future. And she’s taught all of us that Native values make Americans stronger.”
Harjo was in good company, with notables ranging from actress Meryl Streep to musician Stevie Wonder, 19 honorees in total: Alvin Ailey, Isabel Allende, Tom Brokaw, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Mildred Dresselhaus, John Dingell, Ethel Kennedy, Abner Mikva, Patsy Takemoto Mink, Edward Roybal, Charles Sifford, Robert Solow, Stephen Sondheim and Marlo Thomas. Obama included her under the subheading of “trailblazers who bent the arc of our nation toward justice” in his introduction to the group of winners that included the actress, activist and children’s advocate Marlo Thomas, as well as three pioneering civil rights workers murdered by Klu Klux Klan members in 1964.
“Her tireless efforts have protected Native culture, returned Native lands and improved Native lives,” read the announcer as Obama pinned the medal on a smiling Harjo. “With bold resolve, Suzan Shown Harjo pushes us to always seek justice in our time.”