President Obama has named Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee) a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Medal of Freedom, established by President Kennedy in 1963, is the nation’s highest civilian honor. It is awarded to “individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” While there were many luminaries among the 19 awardees, Suzan Harjo, a great friend and colleague of the IP Clinic, is a model of what a recipient of this award can and should be.
Her work for justice for Native peoples has gone largely unheralded for decades—but her perseverance has been extraordinary. Unassisted by high profile board members, public relations experts, lobbying firms and black tie fundraisers, she has worked tirelessly for justice for Native peoples in efforts to reclaim their culture and their dignity. Most of these efforts have simply asked for the return of what once belonged to the very cultures she represents. Whether she is fighting for appropriated or misappropriated places, graves, remains , tribal property, names or imagery –the ask has been simple and consistent —dignity and respect for Native cultures and peoples.
Her name is most often associated with the successful trademark cancellation proceeding against the Washington football franchise, a request she initiated in 1992, but still tied up in federal court nearly 25 years later. Despite the recent notoriety of that particular issue, she had worked steadfastly for many years trying to convince the larger world of professional and scholastic sports to renounce the use of team names, mascots and imagery promoting negative stereotypes of Native Americans. But her meritorious good works and quest for Native justice go well beyond those efforts. Over her long career she has worked to preserve and protect Native sacred places, human remains, tribal sovereignty and cultural property. Suzan was the driving force behind most of the important laws protecting Native American cultures and arts including the 1996 Executive Order on Indian Sacred Sites, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act, and the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Harjo serves as the president of the Morning Star Institute, an advocacy group she founded in 1984 for Native culture and education. She served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1984-1989 and continues to serve as co-chair of their subcommittee on Human, Religious, and Cultural Concerns. She was also a founder of the National Museum of the American Indian and guest curator of the museum’s current exhibit Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations. She is also a prolific writer, poet, accomplished scholar and mother. And, as we at the IP Clinic know, she is a truly wonderful friend and mentor.
The medal will be presented to Suzan by the President at a White House ceremony on Monday, November 24th.
Congratulations and AHO Suzan!
Suzan at the 2013 IP Clinic Reunion