National Museum of the American Indian Celebrates the Life and Works of Native American Activist Suzan Shown Harjo

Influential policy advocate, writer, curator and 2014 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee) will be recognized for a lifetime of achievement at the symposium “A Promise Kept: The Inspiring Life and Works of Suzan Shown Harjo,” Friday, Sept. 20, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. A founding trustee of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Harjo’s legacy of activism and artistic accomplishment continues to inspire American Indian people and influence U.S. policies about Native sovereignty and culture. Free and open to the public, the symposium will be held in the museum’s Rasmuson Theater.

Presented by the National Museum of the American Indian and the Institute of American Indian Arts’ (IAIA) Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, the symposium coincides with the 15th anniversary of the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and the 30th anniversary of the museum’s 1989 Act that Harjo was a leading force in the 22-year campaign to achieve. It also will be the fifth anniversary of the opening of the exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian and publication of the companion book, both titled “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.” Harjo was the guest curator of the award-winning exhibition and editor of the book.

“Suzan has worked tirelessly on behalf of Native peoples as an activist, journalist and leader,” said Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian. “Her list of achievements is long and includes being the founding president of The Morning Star Institute, a national Native rights organization that promotes Native peoples’ traditions, cultures and arts. Her continued work as an inspiring leader and role model has made Indian Country proud.”

The symposium will bring together Native American activists, scholars, artists and writers to offer insights from their areas of expertise into Harjo’s impact on Native American issues, including Jodi Archambault, director, Indigenous Peoples Initiatives, Wend Ventures; Philip J. Deloria, professor, Harvard University; Kevin Gover; Duke Ray Harjo II; Tina Kuckkahn-Miller, vice president, Indigenous Arts and Education, The Evergreen State College; Robert G. Martin, president, Institute of American Indian Arts; Michael D. McNally, professor, Carleton College; Mary Kathryn Nagle, partner, Pipestem Law P.C., and playwright; Patsy Phillips, director, IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts; Wilson Pipestem, founding partner, Pipestem Law P.C.; James Riding In, professor, University of Arizona; Gabrielle Tayac, Smithsonian Research Associate; Mark Trahant, editor, Indian Country Today; and W. Richard West Jr., president and CEO, Autry Museum of the American West, and founding director emeritus, National Museum of the American Indian. U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Muscogee [Creek] Nation) will give the opening poem.

The day will be dedicated to discussing the struggle for Native religious and cultural rights; repatriation and protection of ancestors; Native Nations’ sovereignty, citizenship, artist identity and authenticity in the marketplace under tribal and federal law; and racist stereotypes and cultural appropriation.

Harjo is widely recognized for her intensive efforts to address issues at the core of Native American identity: treaty rights, abolition of racist sports mascots, sacred places’ protection and access, religious freedom and language revitalization. Her social and political activism and commitment to achieving Native rights are lifelong, dating from her earliest years as a public figure in poetry and theater. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as a broadcaster she co-produced “Seeing Red,” the first national Native news show in the United States, on WBAI-FM Radio in New York City, and in the mid-1970s, she was the news director for the American Indian Press Association, in Washington, D.C. As a special assistant for Native American legislation in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, Harjo was the principal author of the “President’s Report to Congress on American Indian Religious Freedom.” She served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) from 1984 through 1989. She is one of seven Native people who filed the 1992 landmark lawsuit Harjo et al v. Pro Football Inc., regarding the name of the Washington, D.C., football team, and she organized the identical Blackhorse case that was brought by Native young people. Both cases involved a quarter-century of litigation.

Harjo was part of the coalition that first envisioned the National Museum of the American Indian in 1967. In 1984, in her capacity as executive director of NCAI and president of the Morning Star Institute, Harjo initiated talks with the Secretary of the Smithsonian. As a trustee of the Museum of the American Indian (MAI), the National Museum of the American Indian’s predecessor museum collection, she was authorized to conduct certain negotiations for MAI and was the spokesperson for NCAI and Morning Star. A principal drafter of the National Museum of the American Indian and repatriations laws, she was the principal author of the new museum’s first trustees’ policies on repatriation, identity and exhibitions, and helped to draft its bylaws and collections policy. She chaired its first public programs committee and served on the search and selection committees for the museum’s founding director and architect.

“Dr. Harjo’s achievements for IAIA and NMAI are lasting features of our institutions,” said Patsy Phillips, director of IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. “Her contributions to arts and letters, activism and laws, and institution-building are amazing and the reason she is so widely recognized and awarded, including by IAIA, whose Honorary Doctorate in Humanities she earned with a lifetime of realized ideas and hard work.”

In addition to curating “Nation to Nation” and a dozen other exhibitions, Harjo curated the first exhibition of artwork by contemporary Native artists shown in the U.S. House and Senate rotundas, “Visions from Native America” (1992). Her poetry is widely anthologized and published, including in the exhibition “Blood of the Sun: Artists Respond to the Poetry of Suzan Shown Harjo,” curated by America Meredith in Santa Fe (2011). Harjo was the host of the first three seasons of the Native Writers Series and directed the Native Language Repository Project at the National Museum of the American Indian. She is one of eight Native women honored on “Winyan Wánakikśin” (“Women Defenders of Others”), a buffalo horn belt created by artists Kevin Pourier (Oglala Lakota) and Valerie Pourier (Ogala Lakota), newly placed on exhibit in the museum’s Potomac Atrium.

Details about the symposium program are available at the NMAI and IAIA websites: and

About the National Museum of the American Indian

In partnership with Native peoples and their allies, the National Museum of the American Indian fosters a richer shared human experience through a more informed understanding of Native peoples. The museum in Washington, D.C., is located on the National Mall at Fourth Street and Independence Avenue S.W. and is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25).

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About IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

The mission of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) is to advance contemporary Native art through exhibitions, collections, public programs and scholarship. MoCNA’s outreach through local and national collaborations allows us to present the most progressive Native art exhibitions and public programming.

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