A conversation with Suzan Shown Harjo

Christine Graef
9/30/03

Tending our patch of garden

Activist, reformer, protestor, mother, wife, daughter, sister, granddaughter, aunt, friend, writer, lecturer, curator, Suzan Shown Harjo's experience with the process of creating Indian law has not drained her patience.

"While the process is slow, it is evolving as it should," she said. "There's nothing tedious about my life. This is cooking over here, legislation is going to take time, I'll see an art show or work on other things. I'm privileged. I go to ceremonies, visit relatives, see important places, my places and other people's places. I see the commonality. I am reinforced, encouraged. I'm able to leave prayers of thanks everywhere."

She's just taking care of her patch of garden, she said.

"It's not always on one person. Those making it about one person are in for a fall. What's good for the people as a whole is to have a lot of good followers."

Leadership voices of today have functional leadership because they understand their part in the collective effort, she said.

"I'm a really good follower, a really good person to have in a group," she said. "But when it's your turn, you need to pony up and do it."

Leadership is a burden, she said. There's a lot of tension in Indian country just like everywhere else. Sometimes someone thinks it'll be a fun thing, but it's hard.

"It's why I like to get behind people in leadership positions," she said. "I've been there, know what not to visit on a leader."

What we all need is a sense of place first. And a sense of our own place second.

"All these things can be learned," she said. "If we're lucky, we have it as a child. If we don't have it, we begin to see what's missing when we have our own children. Wisdom of experience and seeing what's needed are an unbeatable combination. That's what was undertaken between elders and youth through our history."

Indians can not use contractions

The first act of colonization was to change the name of the people, take away their identity.

"It diminished the importance of what they're doing to a lesser place of importance to what the whites were doing," Harjo said.

Returning to the United States at the age of 16 after five years in Italy with her family, Harjo worked in radio and theater production in New York, where she met Frank Harjo. The civil rights struggles of the 1960s rooted her in a cause for religious freedom, civil rights and getting the voice of the people heard.

She and Frank co-produced "Seeing Red," a bi-weekly radio program in New York City, the first Indian news show slated for a regular schedule. Later, Harjo became a founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City with plans to build its counterpart on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C. She also developed Red Thunder, an American Indian rock band and has appeared on such shows as Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live, CNN's Talkback Live and C-SPAN's Washington Journal.

But as much as has been accomplished, she still has reason for concern with portrayals of Native people in movies and television. Speaking out against films such as "Dances with Wolves," "The Last of the Mohicans" and "Cheyenne Autumn." Harjo said, "They still don't get it right."

In "Dancing With Wolves," the filmmakers didn't know that Indians did not use contractions.

"And that's one of the better movies," said Harjo.

The stereotypical good white guy placing Indians second and using a language continues to imply Indians are different and out of context of any place.

Notice that white people skip, run and jump but Indians only roam, she said. Instead of music and songs, we chant.

"Our stories can not be done by an outsider," she said. "We need our own people to make the films."

A growing population

"We're one of the fastest growing populations in the country," said Harjo.

In 1492 there were an estimated 50 million Indians in North America. The U.S. Census began including American Indians in the census in 1860. According to the census, the number of American Indians on the continent is rising drastically.

Today there are 281.4 million people living across the continent's 3.5 million square miles, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Of these, 0.9, or 2.6 million people, are reported to be American Indian and Alaska Native.

"The Census numbers still are the only reliable ones," said Harjo.

Census numbers are estimates, not reflective of the unknown number of people who passed for black or white in order to survive hostilities, or the number that may be reflected in the rising wishes for gaming money.

Early census reports identified people by observation until 1950. In 1970, self-identification replaced the interview and self-identification method of the 1960s and 1970s.

Enumerators were told to identify Mulatto among black populations during the five census reports from 1850 to 1920. An unknown number of Indians identified themselves as black, white or Mulatto to pass unnoticed in a hostile society.

Today, 2.4 percent of the rest of the population, or 683,512 are reported to be of two or more races.

(Continued in Part Four)

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page