Part Four of a Six-Part Series
By Robin A. Ladue, PhD
In the last three years, the courage and activism of three brilliant, committed, and brave Native American people has been honored with the award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee Nations) – 2014; Billy Frank, Jr. (Nisqually Nation) – 2015; and Elouise Pe’pion Cobell (Blackfoot Confederacy) – 2016.
These giants join a very select group with three other Native American elders and leaders who had previously been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom:
• Annie Dodge Wuaneka (Dine’ Nation) -1963
• Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee Nation) – 1998
• Joe Medicine Crow (Crow Nation) – 2009
As previously noted, all the Native American Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients were awarded this honor under a Democratic president. There were 35 years separating the first two Native American recipients. There was another 11 years between recipients two and three, and five years between three and four. One of the most recent winners of the Presidential Medal of Freedom is Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee Nations). She is a woman who well knows the struggles and fights facing Native people. Harjo’s activism started early in her life and well before the millennium arrived. She was born in Oklahoma on an allotment near Beggs. Part of her childhood was spent in Naples, Italy, where her father was stationed with the United States Army.
Fifty years ago, in the mid-1960s, Harjo co-produced one of the first Indian news programs in the United States, a program called Seeing Red on a New York station, WBAI-FM. She and her husband, Frank, whom she met in New York, worked on issues of protecting religious freedom for Native Americans. The importance of her work cannot be underestimated, as it was not until 1978 with the passage of the Indian Religious Freedom Act, that Native people could finally practice their spiritual beliefs openly, and in peace. Prior to the passing of this act, when Harjo was 33, it was illegal for Native people to practice their religious beliefs, despite the First Amendment.
To put the immense value of the Indian Religious Freedom Act in perspective, it should be remembered that part of what led to the massacre of 300 innocent Native people at Wounded Knee, was the people of the land dancing the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance spread across the Plains in a last hope that the dance would protect the people of the prairies from the Gatling guns of the US Calvary. It should also be remembered that children enrolled in Native boarding schools (including this writer’s grandfather and great-uncles) were forbidden to practice their traditional beliefs, or to speak their Native languages. Harjo was an integral part of regaining the simple right of religious freedom for Native people, which speaks to the giant she was, and is, in Indian Country.
In 1974, Ms. Harjo and her husband took up residence in Washington, D.C., just four years before the Indian Religious Freedom Act was enacted, and 50 years after Native people received the right to vote. During her time in Washington, D.C., she became the first president of the Morning Star Institute, a national Native rights organization. As a young woman, Harjo established a goal of removing Native mascots, saying, “You strip the person of humanity and they’re just an object and you can do anything.”
She forged ahead in legal battles against the ugly name of the Washington pro football team. Her horrific experience at a game prompted her to file a suit to have the courts remove the trademark protections for the team. One of the most telling experiences detailed by Harjo took place at a game shortly after her arrival in Washington, D.C.
“We’re football fans and we can separate the team name from the game, so we went to a game. And we didn’t stay for the game, at all, because people started—someone said something, ‘Are you this or that?’ So, we started to answer, then people started like pulling our hair. And they would call us that name and it was so weird for us. So, we left and never went to another game.”
Harjo’s first legal case, as the plaintiff, went to the Patent and Trademark Office in 1992. In a very bizarre ruling, a federal judge ruled that Harjo was “too old” to be a plaintiff and “should have brought the case closer to her 18th birthday.” A more likely reason for the judge’s odd ruling likely had to do with the judge and her husband being strong supporters of the Washington football team.
Despite the legal losses, Harjo persevered. Several years ago, she recruited Amanda Blackhorse from Dine’ and, eventually, in 2009, the case was heard. Victory occurred in 2014 when the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the United States Patent and Trademark Office voted to cancel the six trademarks held by the team. While the decision was 2-1, it did affirm that the trademark was, indeed, as Harjo had claimed for 22 years, disparaging of Native people.
The battle against Native mascotry continues. While it has been reported that 2/3rd of the teams and schools with Native mascotry have retired their mascots, there are still hundreds of schools and sports teams that use offensive mascotry. One of the most offensive among the remaining mascots is “Chief Wahoo” of the Cleveland Indians. It is hard to imagine that such an image would be allowed to represent any other racial, ethnic, or cultural group.
Harjo was executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1984-1989. She has been a strong advocate in her work with Congress to protect and expand Native American traditional fishing and hunting rights. She has been a strong believer in Indian education and has worked tirelessly for economic development for Native people and communities.
In fact, Harjo has been an advocate for Native people in every aspect of life, including healthy children and families, strong and traditional communities, dignity and respect, economic development and treaty rights. She has been an outspoken critic about people who claim Native ancestry without supporting documentation. She has stood up for Native people speaking for themselves and being their own advocates. She has written books.
For her strong and life-long dedication to Native people, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2014. There is simply not enough space in this article to address the absolute dedication Harjo has given Indian Country. As the 45th president has taken office, the water protectors at Standing Rock have been brutalized by government troops, as the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is now being allowed to continue drilling under the Missouri River. There are horrible and threatening statements about “privatizing” Native lands from the administration. Yet Harjo’s courage and persistence remain as beacons to the rest of Indian Country. While the struggle for dignity and rights in Indian Country has been centuries long, today the imminent threats to Indian Country appear even greater.
With her courage, Harjo has well demonstrated what Native people will need to do to survive. There is no doubt that Harjo will continue to be on the front lines of these struggles, providing a very strong set of shoulders for young Native people to stand on and to gather strength from. It was more than appropriate that Ms. Harjo received the highest civilian medal of honor that is awarded by this country for her steadfastness in never losing sight of what Native American people and communities can do and in encouraging others to stand up, too. ♦