Suzan Shown Harjo

Native American History Month Keynote Address - Nov. 13, 2008

Suzan Shown Harjo
November 13, 2008— Library of Congress
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Good afternoon.

Did I mess that up totally? Can you hear me?

I'm so glad to be here and thank everyone who spoke before. I was pleased to have the memory again, of the cylinder project. I was the first advocate for a BIA grant to the cylinder project in 1978 and '79. I was very happy to get it launched and to see so many of our Native people coming in to Washington, to listen to the sound of language that they hadn't heard ever in their lives. They were listening to people using conversational words and phrases that, as of the late 1970s, were only used in ceremony in some cases. They were also listening to the sound of people making up stories, for impossible questions, by people who wanted to capture the last vanishing Americans – which is what Native people were called in the late 1800s, after so much horror had been visited on them, on us.

And they, the people who were listening to the sounds of their ancestors, would just laugh. They would hear a question like ‘do you think that you are animals?’ Or ‘how many gods do you have?’ And you would hear someone go, ‘well, child, let me tell you a story’ – and they would begin a fantastic story, some of which has come down to be authentic anthropology of a given nation, when in fact, it was a soothing bedtime story.

So, it was interesting to hear all of that, but also to be given the gift of songs that had gone out of our societies – or songs that had begun to be sung in a different way – and to hear them in the original, that was an amazing gift. So I thank you for that.

Also, the mention, of the contributions of our World War II heroes puts me in mind of my father, who passed away last year at age 85. He had been a World War II hero in the famous Thunderbird Division, 45th Infantry Division. Which his company, Company C, was comprised of only boys from the Chilocco Indian Boarding School. That was his second boarding school. The first one was the Uchi Indian School, where my dad went without speaking any English and only Muskogee – and was beaten up every time he would speak English. He was a linguist, and he learned a lot of languages. The only language he stuttered in after learning 11 languages – and being a cryptographer for the U.S. Army for a long time, making up codes and decoding messages – the only language he stuttered in was English, the one he had been beaten up for speaking in boarding school. I asked him one time, "What do you mean beaten up?"

He said, "Well, you know, with boards."


He said, "Yeah, 1-by-1s or 1-by-2s or…"

And that's a bat, ladies and gentlemen. For a nine-year-old boy, speaking his only language and saying, “[speaks in Muskogee], let's go eat, boy.” In the lunch line he would be beaten up with a board.

A reporter from the Washington Post called him after we got the repatriation laws passed, and I had referenced throughout the legislative history of the repatriation laws – which means, for us, the return of our relatives and living sacred beings and cultural patrimony to our peoples. We had mentioned the civilization regulations which had been in place from 1880s to 1930s, and which outlawed the sun dance and all other so called similar ceremonies; outlawed anything that was pagan or heathen; outlawed keeping our children from going to federal Indian boarding school far away from their homes, completely out of the reach of their extended families, as my father and my mother had been taken. To interfere with that kind of progressive education, as it was called in the civilization regulations, was criminalized. You were made a criminal. You were imprisoned and starved.

So it was that the education and the civilization was carried out for Native America. The reporter from the Washington Post asked dad about the civilization regulations, and I had warned the reporter that no one has ever heard of the civilization regulations, and there are only a few people like myself who really study such stuff, who know how it was done. Because it's important for many of us to know not only what was done, not only the results of it, but how it was done so that we could prevent it from happening in the future; so we could understand the signs of it, and say this is not going to happen on our watch. So the reporter called dad, said, "What about these civilization regulations, do you remember them being in place or being lifted?" And dad thought a while and said, "Well, I don't know anything about the civilization regulations, but I bet I know when they were taken out. Probably that happened when I was in school, in Uchi Indian School and they stopped beating us with boards, and they started beating us with leather straps." He said, "That was a great day."

Now, only in a system where you're beaten with bats would you consider being beaten with straps the dawn of a new era, and a wonderful one. So sometimes what we think is fabulous may not be the be all and end all, but you know it's better than where you have been. So for many of us, in Indian country and elsewhere, we know that as we live day-to-day, things get better. We also know how much the pull and tug is from the past, to return us to the past. And it happens in small ways. We can hear it in the sound of people … resisting progress. We can hear it in the sound of people resisting change. We can hear it in the sound of people throwing cold water on the warmth of hope. We know it when we hear it. That slight pull and tug, returning us to the past. We understand the racism with white gloves that leaves no fingerprints. We understand that, we recognize it, and we need to guard against it – but not to let that halt us, not to let it stop us from making the progress we choose to achieve.

The Iroquois, Haudenosaunee people – the six nations Iroquois Confederacy – have a wonderful way of thinking about this. They say pick a path, follow it, do not look to the right, do not look to the left, stay on your path, do not listen to any of the voices of destruction. What a wonderful thing that is, how often I have thought of that. You think of it when you're tired and don't think you have another way to give in whatever area you're giving. You say, “ah, someone has come along and said, ‘you cannot do that. You can't achieve it. You can't turn history around. You can't stop the inevitable.’” These are the voices of distraction, and all you have to do is identify them as the ones who are going to help you achieve your goals, and the ones who are just distracting you from those goals.

So every time I hear one of those voices of distraction, I think of my dad who just plowed right ahead, kept his Muskogee language in his heart. And when the boys would go out, sneak out in the middle of the night to the lake and talk, they wouldn't talk in English, they would talk in Muskogee.

And he learned English very fast. You learn it very fast when you're being beaten up in the lunchroom, you learn quickly how to say, "Would you pass that, please?” and "would you like some bread?" He went on to be a hero of World War II, as all the men in Company C, the Thunderbird Division, were. On the troop ship over, he and other boys from Chilocco Indian School put together their own code. It was unlike the code of the Navajo code talkers, who had a code devised by Navajos and marine cryptologers – they put together a code within the Navajo language. This was very different. This is what they call the type II codes, which most Native peoples had in the second World War, and in the first. They put together on the troop ship, their words that they would use. Their coordinates were the coordinates of Chilocco Indian School, that's what they knew. And that saved many a life, from North Africa to Sicily, to Anzio and Monte Cassino. My dad was shot up and, almost lost both legs at Monte Cassino, but did survive, until just last year.

And the very first Native American medal of honor winner came out of that experience – Ernest Childers, another Muskogee guy from Chilocco Indian School; in my mother's class not my dad's. And they used this code, their own code, their own Chilocco Indian conversational Muskogee language plus Cherokee plus Apache and other languages that were present at Chilocco Indian School. They used that code to make a way … to Dachau actually, the Company C boys, minus my father and minus Ernest Childers and others, were the ones who liberated Dachau. They were neck and neck with the Japanese American contingent, who liberated the German's cameras and took the first pictures of the men in the striped pajamas. What an amazing thing.

To think of the Native American, the poor Appalachian by that time, in Company C, and African American men in Company C. The Japanese Americans, whose people were in camps, some of them on Indian reservations, … meeting up with the men in the striped pajamas.

It's my hope that the Library of Congress, the Museum of the American Indian, the Holocaust Museum and others will do an exhibit on that point of convergence of all those marginalized peoples, and how they went on. What gave them the optimism to go on, from that point; Why didn't they despair? I think there are a lot of lessons, for them, for us, to learn from their experience of that moment. It's an incredible moment. Why is it they raised children like me, who just don't give up? Why is it they raised children who build institutions and who bring you great change? Why is it that some of us focus on the cultural, the language, the arts, the manifestations of our heritages – that the non-Indians tried to wipe out in the federal Indian boarding schools? It's because of the experience of our parents. Specifically, because of the experience of our parents – who did what they could do, in making children, who get to do the things I get to do.

I was so pleased, this campaign season to be part of the Obama campaign Native American policy, and to see that we have great reason for hope and optimism.

The incoming President is doing a lot to bring healing in the country. For all of us to understand that we really have to look at what has happened in the past, but we have to look at it in a way that doesn't stop us from moving into the future. We can't afford the race-baiting games of the ignorant or the post racial analyses of the intelligencia.

We've heard post-racial, post-racial, post-racial since … the election, as if the election of one African-American man makes this a post-racial society. That's absurd, but we hear it from very smart people. We heard the same thing at the National Museum of the American Indian. People saying, “well, you have an Indian museum now. We're in a post Indian society.” What the heck could that possibly mean? We have an institution because we are the Native Americans, and now we're being told this is a post native society. It is inconsistent, and illogical. So I think of these two things, post-Indian and post-racial, as a challenge for the future to do more to overcome that kind of thinking.

The incoming President has promised dealings on a nation to nation level. Native peoples, our nations, are nations. We have in place treaties, which are made on a nation to nation basis. These are not government to government treaties. It doesn't just mean the society, the business committee, the tribal council – it means the people as a whole, all of the people, the nation. It's a very important thing. I look forward to that. A lot of our Native people have taken what they could and have talked about government to government, meaning just the tribal councils; but that's not where we want to go. We want to be what we have been structured to be since the first treaty was struck with the United States.

One of the earliest treaties said, "Hail to the victorious allies in the revolution," and that was with the Oneida nation. It didn't say “to you little pitiful people who are now our guardians and are now our wards and we're your guardian.” It didn't say “to a couple of your chiefs,” it said to all the people, on a nation to nation basis, and because we were allies in the glorious revolution. The treaties are essential, fundamental. Some of the treaties were written, some of the treaties were not written.

My mother's great-grandfather was Bull Bear, who was the leader of the Cheyenne resistance in the late 1800s. He was the only man to be a leader of the Dogmen Society, which comprised, at that time, over half the Cheyenne people, and he was a peace chief. He was the first signatory to the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty between the United States and the Cheyennes and Arapahos. No one else would sign until he signed, because they knew the treaty would not be good unless he signed for the Dogmen Society families.

His brother was Lean Bear, who was the head of a delegation that came to Washington at the request of President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. So the chiefs, the Cheyenne chiefs, came to talk with Lincoln along with the Comanche, some Comanche chiefs, a delegation, Kiowa – all of the Southern Plains nations sent delegations to treat with President Lincoln. His request was for their neutrality in the Civil War, and they granted that, they gave that. That was with a handshake. That was with a solemn, ‘we agree.’ Nothing was ever put in writing, but the Native people kept that treaty, an unwritten treaty. He asked the same thing of the Pueblo people. They didn't come to Washington, but he sent runners to them, and they also agreed.

While some of our people did take part in that great war, or the War Between the Brothers, the people who were asked not to, complied and agreed with Lincoln. Sadly, for the Cheyennes and for the country and President Lincoln, Lincoln and all the Cheyenne chiefs would be dead within a year after that. And, the first one to go was my relative, Chief Lean Bear, who was killed by the Colorado volunteers as he returned – and even from his meeting with Lincoln; and even as he was showing his peace medal; and even as he was showing his letter of safe transit, from the President.

We have long history with this country. We have long history as nations with this country. We have a long nation to nation treaty relationship with this country. And we value that, just as my father, even though the German intelligence, the Nazi writings at the time, were saying we can defeat this 45th Infantry Division because the Red Indians have no loyalty to the United States, and they will not fight for it. How wrong they were. How wrong they were, because my father, Ernest Childers, Jack Montgomery, people whose names are said a lot but who have no burial place, who have no medal of honor, always said, ‘this is my country, unlike it is anyone else's country. This is our Mother Earth and of course we're going to fight for it.’ Well, fight they did – and how wonderful for me that my dad survived.

I'm here today as well to celebrate all of the progress that we have made – that give us a reason to celebrate Native American heritage. We have now celebrated the 40th – the 30th year, sorry – of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which was signed into law August 11, 1978. What an amazing thing that after the civilization regulations which said everything that is natural and traditional about Native Americans is criminalized – you are now hostiles for dancing dances, singing songs, having ceremonies, having long hair, speaking your languages, all of that makes you a criminal. We went from that, to the American Indian Religious Freedom policy statement which says that it is United States’ position, policy, to preserve and protect Native American religions. That's an amazing thing.

We still have an unfulfilled part of that agenda, and that is the protection of our sacred places, the legal protection of our sacred places, and we look forward to having legislation that will do that. We were able to get the repatriation laws; we were able to get the Museum of the American Indian; and we have gotten protections, legal protections, for our languages, so that we will not be criminalized for speaking them or promoting them or revitalizing them. But we have not gotten legal protections for our sacred places, and they're going very fast toward destruction as we speak, right as we sit here. And much of it is at the hands of the federal government itself – either not stopping private developers or being a private developer destroyer itself. We cannot have that kind of history begin again. So many of us are pushing very hard for legal protections for our sacred places so that we don't see a return to the kind of thinking that brought us the civilization regulations – to the kind of anti-treaty, anti-Indian history that we so want to put behind us. We have glorious, fabulous, sacred places that are being destroyed by vandalism; that are being destroyed by development, by recreation – by pollution.

We are the only peoples in the United States of America who are not permitted to use the First Amendment Freedom of Religion clauses in order to defend our sacred places. Everyone else in America can protect their churches under the First Amendment. We are the only peoples who can't. There was a 1988 ruling by the Supreme Court saying that the Constitution does not provide a cause of action, a door to the courthouse, for the protection of Native American sacred places. So once again, we are the only, only people in America who can't protect our sacred places. Even when they are next to Christian churches on public lands. So this is a terrible injustice that we need, as a society, to say we have to do something about this; we have to correct this. So while we are celebrating everything that Native America has contributed to the United States, including the winning of its wars, we also have to say, with realism, there are some things that we still have to do. This is not a post Indian society. It is not a post racial society. We owe … everything to the people who have given so much and taken so much from this society.

I want to leave some time for questions and answers, but I want to leave you, too … with something that our Native people, who came together in 1992 – 100 wisdom keepers, artists, and writers came together and made a statement, a vision toward the next 500 years. And this was basically at the tail end of us talking about Columbus on the occasion of the Columbus quincentenary and saying, we don't want to be in conflict with Columbus. We want to think what's going to happen to us 500 years from now.

And it begins: In memory of the more than 500 distinct Native nations and millions of our relatives who did not survive the European invasions, and with respect to those indigenous peoples who have survived, we make this statement. We, the indigenous peoples, of this red quarter of Mother Earth have survived 500 years of genocide, ethnocide, ecocide, racism, oppression, colonization, and Christianization. These excesses of western civilization resulted from contempt of Mother Earth and all our relations; contempt for women, elders, children, and Native peoples, and contempt for a future beyond human generation. Despite this, we are here. Since time and memorial, Native nations have lived in harmony with this land and in solidarity with all our relations. Our continued survival begins on this vital relationship. We perpetuate this harmony for our continued survival and world peace. We carry out our religious duties for the good of all. Endangering us endangers us all.

If anyone wants a full copy of this, it's actually very short but I'm just going to tantalize you with that beginning, feel free to contact the organizers of this and I will make copies available for you. I want to give you … a thought, about extinction, and about survival. Native people are sort of the case examples of survivance.

One time I went to Albuquerque, New Mexico – I flew there for an education conference and I turned on the television and it was CNN saying, a reporter saying, that scientists in northern California were elated about the reemergence of the formerly extinct teal blue butterfly. Well, you know when you have heard the words formerly extinct that you have heard some news.

When I was age six I went to my first Sun Dance, which was conducted by our Lakota and Cheyenne relatives at the base of Bear Butte, South Dakota. And the Sun Dance leader, as all of them do, was joking around with us and trying to get us through the day because this is a hard dance – you do it in the hot heat, morning till night, and it's very difficult – and so he was making fun of us and giving us things to laugh about, and then giving us secrets. And one thing he said to me was, "Follow the blue butterfly. Follow the teachings of the blue butterfly."

So I never knew what he was talking about because I never saw the blue butterfly. And I thought, ‘oh, okay, so after a while, you know, years of not seeing the blue butterfly I thought this is a magic thing. Okay.’ I'll never see the blue butterfly except in a magic kind of situation so it's just something I'll think about. Well, when I heard about the teal blue butterfly that had been on the Plains about the time that the Indians were being wiped out and the buffalo were being wiped out and hunted down to near extinction, I thought that the teal blue butterfly must have gone through what Einstein called a passage of time and ended up in northern California a century later, having said, ‘this isn't going to happen to us, we're out of here.’ And they emerged to the elation of the scientists. So, it reminded me … to give thanks for what we have, and to never count anyone out and this is a poem called "Songs Who Sing."

There are songs who sing themselves.

They start in the heartbeat of creation,

Thunder medicine echoing, echoing,

Echoing through canyons of time.

The songs who sing themselves scale mountains,

Then fly from world to world.

Fire medicine, sounding, breathing,

Flying through lightening and shooting stars.

The songs who sing themselves swim oceans

Then come, then come down with the gentle night rain,

With the morning due, with mist on clear blue streams.

The songs who sing paint warriors.

Warriors on watch, on watch for blood,

For blood at dawn.

The songs who sing wail like mourners,

Wail like mourners,

Mourners laying their children down.

Laying their children down, down in the sunset.

The songs who sing heal Mother Earth In the joy of birth and skip beats

And skip beats with rattles and sighs and sighs.

The songs sing the evening prayers

For grandfather cedars who talk in the night.

The songs sing the midday prayers

For grandmother moon and her circles of life.

The songs sing themselves for the butterflies

To hide in the teal blue sky.

The songs sing themselves for the buffalo

To roam through the passages of time.

The songs sing themselves for the buffalo to dance,

For the buffalo to dance.

For the buffalo to dance with the sunflowers again,

The buffalo are dancing again.

The buffalo are dancing again.

And the songs are still singing.

The songs are still singing.

The songs are still singing for you,

For you, for you, for you.

[Jess James] Do you have any questions?

[Male Speaker] Can you tell us about your lawsuit about the Washington football team?

[Harjo] Well, I can tell you this, don't ever allow yourself to have your name put on a lawsuit, if you can possibly help it. We had to step up as the responsible adult population in 1992 … and to sue the owners of the Washington football team. Now, I'm a sports fan – I'm from Oklahoma, I was born a sports fan, but, I can't root for the home team, with that despicable name. So I and our most prolific writer, Vine Deloria Jr., who died a few years ago – and boy do we miss him, he would have loved this time – Norbert Hill, one of our great educators, and many others filed a lawsuit before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Board. We filed on September 10, 1992, so we're in our 17th year of litigation.

We won, in 1999, before a three trademark judge panel. We lost before the U.S. District Court in 2003, where one federal judge overturned the three trademark judges, and we appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals where it is pending. We also caused another lawsuit to be filed. When it was suggested that we might lose our lawsuit because of a loophole called latches – too much time elapsing – where the federal judge said we, older people, had waited too long to file a lawsuit after reaching our majority. So on August 11, 2006, six Native American young people ages 18 to 24 filed the identical lawsuit before the identical forum where it is pending. And they have, since they filed as soon as possible after reaching their majority, there is no possibility for the loophole of latches to be used against them as an affirmative defense. So not only is our lawsuit still pending, the Harjo, et al lawsuit, but the Black Horse, et al lawsuit is still pending. And we have grandchildren, and friends, other relatives. So that's basically it.


[Female Speaker] I was once, some years ago, on the Cherokee Indian reservation, and they had a motel called the Redskin Motel. Do you know if it still has that name?

[Harjo] Oh, I hope not.

And I hope it wasn't the Cherokees. But I'm not suggesting that every Native American thinks the same way about this. I am saying that all of, every one of our national Native organizations has a specific position on our lawsuit, and that's with us, and has called for the elimination of all Native references in American sports. And the good news is, we have won. We have won. We're on the downhill slide.

When the University of Oklahoma dropped Little Red, in 1970, there were over 3,000 Native references in American sports. Today there are just over 900. So over two-thirds of these have been eliminated from the American scene, in not very long a time. And that is an American societal see change, so I'm very proud of that, to be on the right side of history and to know, in the meantime, we have built an Indian museum, so we have a place to show these former … aberrations in American society and to say, what were they thinking? They can be consigned to the museums and to the history books, along with the little lawn jockeys and the other things that indicate … a view of Native, and other people of color, that is quite wrong and that shouldn't be acceptable, and at one point has been concluded to not be acceptable in polite society.


[Female Speaker] [unintelligible]. What I wonder is in order to preserve the culture and the history and traditions of the Native Americans from the past, we know that we can never go back to the past [unintelligible], how – what is the vision or what is the idea of bringing back and taking it into the future so that you have that culture and that preservation of your heritage in a future society? What does that look like?

[Harjo] Oh, it looks like me who can go into a Cheyenne ceremony or a Muskogee ceremony and be an active vital part of that and can still, you know, give you a thousand lines of Hamlet. It means that we are who we are and who we have always been, multicultural, multi-societal peoples. That we have always been incorporative nations, and we haven't been afraid of either change or new things coming in. We look at them, we try them out for a century or two and say, "that's pretty good, I think we'll keep that." We're not the people who went away and now we're trying to come back. We're the same people. We're the modern evidence of ancient cultural continuums. And, in a society where we drive automobiles … we understand how to incorporate that and how to drive across country to a certain sacred place, but still leave the car and go walking around and doing the things that we need to do at the place which doesn't involve taking that automobile. The horse was new to us, too, but we didn't say, “oh, the horse, it's strange, let's kill it.” [laughter] We said, wow, let's, let's make this a part of us and do what's appropriate to have done with this new thing. So what it looks like is, is what it is, whatever we want to make of it. And that means just not having to be penalized or to suffer because we look at things differently or want to dress differently or speak differently.

[Female Speaker] You mentioned that, in 1863 [unintelligible] and he was asking [unintelligible] Civil War and they agreed to this. And my question is: What was in it for them? Why did they agree not to disagree or get involved or see this as a wedge issue or something?

[Harjo] They saw it – well, I can only tell you what has come down in oral history through the Cheyennes and through my family – They saw it as the brothers fighting the brothers and that it was not our war. We didn't have a stake in it as far as one side or the other, and we weren't asked by Lincoln to take one side or the other. We were asked to be neutral. I think because that was the request that was the request that was complied with. They didn't try to second guess. Does that answer your question?

[Female Speaker] Well, yes, it does but I'm just real curious as to why Lincoln thought it was necessary to see it.

[Harjo] Why what?

[Female Speaker] Why Lincoln thought it necessary to see fit [unintelligible].

[Harjo] Oh, because it had – because the Civil War could have branched out into our territories, and, so what he was saying was don't let it. By taking a position of neutrality those particular nations, the Southern Plains nations were taking a position on the side of the Union in effect by not entertaining it in their territory. So it was a jurisdiction thing, too, and it brought great harm and destruction to the Southern Plains peoples, from both sides, after the Civil War, especially after the Civil War. And it's probably the reason that, no matter the administration, for some time there were destructive policies against Native peoples, because no matter who was in someone had a beef with us.

Thank you so much. I appreciate your coming and listening.

[James] Just one second.

[Harjo] Oh, okay.

[James] First of all, I want to personally thank you. Sitting, listening, at your talk brought back so many memories of things that I found consistent in my life and my upbringing. To listen to you help explain what happened in the Native American life is, I found most interesting because to find consistencies in the way that I was brought up and some of the discussions and listening to you talk about your father. Just as I was lulled into saying, oh, we have so much in common, then you launched into an area of discussion which led me to know that there's so much that we do not know about each other, that discussions like this give us the opportunity to learn more, and to share, the differences that in the end make us so consistent and so true to the Americans. I thought in reading about Trails of Tears and Tecumseh that I had learned more, but listening to you, you led me to understand that there's much more to learn. On behalf of the Library, we would like to express our deep appreciation for you coming today, for you sharing this time and sharing your history with us and in the manner in which you shared it. And in recognition of that, I have a gift, which is Many Nations, and it is the Library of Congress resource guide for the study of Indian and Alaskan Native people of the United States.

[Harjo] Thank you so much.

[James] It has been signed by the Librarian.

[Harjo] Oh, how nice.

[James] And he would have been here if he didn't have to run off to do something else. Thank you very much.

[Harjo] Thank you.

[James] Yes. And I have one other duty, the Library has made it a habit when it has events like this to launch new portholes. If you will push that button, we'll find what we will be launching today.

[Harjo] How exciting.

[James] Thank you very much.

[Harjo] Thank you, that's great.

Harjo, S. S. (2008, November 13). Suzan Shown Harjo Delivers the 2008 Native American History Month Keynote Address [Speech audio recording]. Library of Congress. Retrieved on April 9, 2022 from