The Great Art, Good Works and Abundant Devotees of Suzan Shown Harjo
On the evening of the day that Suzan Shown Harjo received an honorary doctorate for a lifetime of contributions to American Indian art and culture from the Institute of American Indian Arts, almost two dozen Native artists opened an exhibit called Blood of the Sun, featuring works they had produced in response to Harjo’s poetry.
It was yet another fitting tribute to a woman who has become an icon for her activism and leadership in Indian country. Harjo, 66, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is known as a writer, a curator and a dedicated advocate for American Indian art and culture. With the best interests of Indian country always in mind, Harjo has also been a leading policy-maker who 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; the 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act, which required the Smithsonian to engage in the repatriation of 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), which requires all museums and other organizations receiving federal funds to return human remains and cultural items, including funerary items, to their rightful tribal keepers if asked to do so. At various times Harjo has also been—and continues to be—involved in the arts as an actor, director, singer, guitar player and dancer.
But in a life of almost nonstop activities—political, social, spiritual, cultural and artistic—Harjo says it is poetry that nurtures, renews and sustains her. “I think in and of poetry all the time. It helps, especially when politics prove untrustworthy and policies fail, and it aids in the cultural, structural, natural and spiritual reclamation,” Harjo says.
Blood of the Sun: Artists Respond to the Poetry of Suzan Shown Harjo was exhibited at the Ahalenia Studios in Santa Fe and included artists from more than 20 indigenous nations across the country. The show included paintings, sculptures, installation pieces and a performance piece by artist DeCoy Gallerina, Warm Springs Chiricahua Apache, at both the opening reception on May 13 and the closing reception on May 22.
In her typically generous manner, Harjo thanked the artists who participated in Blood of the Sun for inspiring her. “It’s an honor to be associated with such extraordinary artists,” she said a few days before the opening. “Many of these artists have inspired my creative and policy work for years. I look forward to the interpretations of and commentary on my poetry by these diplomats, resisters and catalysts in the arts.”
For many of the artists in the show, Harjo has been the central role model, inspiration and mentor. “She’s a tremendously powerful spiritual person,” says Mateo Romero, who painted Child of Time in response to Harjo’s poem of the same name. The painting is of a tattered white dress on a monochromatic background of browns laid onto the surface in thick, dynamic and luscious brush strokes. “Suzan’s a leader. She’s a mentor to me on a personal level, a role model, a mother figure and someone I’ve listened to very closely for many years. She’s known primarily for her advocacy and lawmaking but she’s a wonderful poet, a phenomenal poet, perhaps underappreciated for her poetry. She’s a very great artist and she’s a very close friend. I think the world of her.”
Romero heard Harjo speaking about the genesis of her poem “Child of Time” at a lecture in Santa Fe around six years ago. “She didn’t read the poem but talked about going to the Smithsonian archives where she encountered a Plains woman’s dress, a young girl’s dress, and she had been shot and the dress had bullet holes and blood stains on it and I think half the dress was missing.” Later, Harjo had visions of the girl, Romero says. “The girl told Suzan that she was an unrestful spirit, that she had been murdered and part of her spirit was kind of captive in this facility in the vaults— and that was the imperative for Suzan to establish the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.”
Harjo’s story was transformed into the image of a ghost-dance shirt in Romero’s painting. “It was very tangible and it spoke to me directly on a very deep human level. I chose the ghost shirt because it represents the spiritual aspect of all these things and it has a certain urgency and potency so I placed celestial images on it, birds and the sun on a white ceremonial dress,” says Romero, who added that he is shipping the painting to Harjo as a gift.
Harjo says she wrote that poem in 1965 after she and her mother visited the Museum of the American Indian, which in 1989 became the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI, of which Harjo was a founding trustee) and saw “that sweet, horrible dress.” The girl appeared in her dreams, most often silently “until sometime after we got NAGPRA enacted, and then she was gone. I still miss her,” she says.
Despite decades of writing poems, Harjo’s poetry hasn’t been collected in a book. She says that her poems have been published in journals and anthologies but “I’m in everybody else’s books. I think it was never a priority to me. It was important to get my work out and there are other ways to do that, so I’ve been in a lot of journals and newspapers and anthologies. A lot of them are community poems written to serve the people and give people a way to articulate certain kinds of issues. Books have not been my choice of outlet,” Harjo says. “They take too long,” she adds. One of her most famous poems is “Jumping Through the Hoops of Time of History,” a poem written to commemorate remembering—not honoring—the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s invasion of Turtle Island. “I wrote it in 1991 and just sent it far and wide to people so that they could use it, and a lot of people who were asked in their areas to give Columbus kinds of talks and lectures read that poem. That was great and it was published in all sorts of Indian newspapers and that’s exactly what I wanted to happen.”
David Bradley, who painted Indian Land for the Blood of the Sun exhibit, used some of the same words as Romero to describe Harjo. He says she’s been a “natural leader, mentor and dear friend over the years [and] has taught me a great deal about life. I feel fortunate to count her as my close friend.”
Indian country has always been Harjo’s priority, Bradley says. “Suzan has always fought the good fight, putting the best interests of the Indian community ahead of her own welfare. She has always been brave enough to fight many difficult political battles, including those that other Indian leaders and politicians would not dare to touch. I think Suzan should be recognized as one of the great Indian leaders of our generation.”
Writing has been central to Harjo’s life, and she’s been writing for a long, long time. She grew up on a farm on reservation land in Oklahoma for the first 11 years of her life, surrounded by family. “Mom taught me to read and write when I was three; Dad taught me to swim and hunt by then; his mom and dad taught me to clean and cook (or dry) squirrels, sofkee (corn), deer, wild onions and grape dumplings, and to tan hides; and her folks taught me to sew and whittle. Everyone taught me to sing and dance and run and find water and speak my mind, and to know and understand our various histories and the languages of ceremony. Arts, cultures, traditions, teaching and learning were all around us in Oklahoma, as were injustices, cruelty and inequities—lots to learn from. I learned to be reverent, observant, watchful, diplomatic, appreciative of our treaties and rights, courageous in defense of our peoples and anyone who was vulnerable. These people and things put me on the path I’ve been on for a long time. Many defining moments, but not just one,” Harjo wrote in response to e-mail questions about her childhood.
“I cannot remember a time when I didn’t write, and poems (and lyrics) were the form my writing took,” she wrote. Her first poem was published in Italy where she lived with her family as a young teenager when her father was stationed in Naples with the U.S. Army. “My first poem was published in an Italian magazine when I was 12, the same year I won a school-wide contest for the words to the school song.… Later, in high school, I also took to reporting and opinion writing, which have served me well over the decades. All those kinds of writings—and knowledge of treaties, laws, history and theater—prepared me for policy writing and drafting and achieving laws.”
A list of what she calls her “fave poets”: Shakespeare, Pablo Neruda, Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, Lance Henson (Cheyenne), Richard Ray Whitman (Yuchi/Pawnee), T.C. Cannon (Caddo), Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree), Langston Hughes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Alexander Posey (Muscogee Creek), Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Dante, Audre Lorde, Gertrude Stein, Muriel Rukeyser, [her son] Duke Ray Harjo II (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee), Alice Walker, Bell Hooks, Rumi. “So many great writers, so little time,” Harjo wrote.
Later, she sent an addendum. “I am reminded of the perils of list-making. Arthur Rimbaud and Josef Brodsky should be at or near the top. Just for the Great Record in the Sky. Aho. Suzan.”
Surely one of the most prominent activities documented in the Great Record will be Harjo’s initiation of the 1992 landmark case, Harjo et al v. Pro-Football, Inc., which sought to banish the racist name of the Washington Redskins. The plaintiffs won the case, before losing it in appeal in a decision based on laches—a legal doctrine that essentially says a plaintiff has waited too long to bring the complaint. “We exhausted all our remedies and the Supreme Court declined to grant certiorari and let the appellate court decision stand, which said this [ruling] is not on the merits, this is solely on a defense of laches.” So Harjo organized a group of young people who filed a new version of the lawsuit in 2006.
Harjo said the driving force behind her multitude of activities, including her poetry, is her huge extended family, and many of her relatives traveled to Santa Fe to celebrate her honorary degree and the art show. “My children, grandchildren, extended family and all the coming generations are my primary motivators,” she says. “I do what I do out of a duty of care for them and with respect to our ancestors.”
In her remarks after receiving the award, Harjo recognized her family members from Acoma, Cochiti and Taos Pueblos; her son, his partner and their sons; her 91-year-old aunt, who helped raise her and with whom she lived during her senior year of high school in Oklahoma City; and Cheyenne and Muscogee relatives, including a niece and grandniece and their mother and grandmother. “I talked about our Cheyenne relatives who made an unwritten treaty with President Lincoln in the White House in 1863 to maintain neutrality in the U.S. Civil War, and of our Muscogee relatives who made the Treaty of New York in 1790 with President George Washington, and who named our ceremonial ground ‘Nuyakv’ after the occasion.”
Ancestors mingle with present-day family members in her mind and her words. “My great-great grandfather Bull Bear was head of the Dog-Men Society in the late 1800s that included Lakota, Dakota, Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa. It was a huge alliance on the Plains and Southern Plains and he was leader of the Cheyenne resistance. The Bull Bears at Pine Ridge today are from my great-great grandfather and they always remember they’re Cheyenne as well as Lakota, so we have lots and lots of people in many places,” she says.
If the past seems to be alive for her, it’s because the centuries collapse on one another when memories of the ancestors are kept alive. “When you honor your ancestors you honor them not just in words but by keeping them with you all the time, and whenever you raise their name they come into your sphere, they’re present with you and are part of your decisions,” Harjo says. “In Iroquois country they talk about the seven generations. We have the same thing in the Plains, but a little different. You honor the three generations of the past and the three generations to come and then your own time, so you’re always in the middle. You’re between the people you’re honoring and the people you’re providing for.”