As president and director of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., the oldest and the largest Indian advocacy group in the country, Suzan Shown Harjo reminds the federal government of the treaty rights promised in return for land cessions. She tries, in the face of constant budget cuts, to get the administration to honor the education, housing, and health benefits promised to Indians.
Harjo lived on a farm in Oklahoma for her first 11 years. Then, from the age of 12 until the age of 16, she lived in Naples, Italy, where her father had been stationed with the U.S. Army. She found a familiar tribal feeling in the Italian neighborhoods where people had known one another for generations, as they had on her Oklahoma reservation. Her early years on Indian territory were spent without running water, without indoor plumbing, without electricity. At that time, her notion of wealth was the ice put into drinks in the drugstore in town. Now, she deals with a budget of nearly $1 million, and drinks iced tea.
Harjo sings, plays the guitar, composes poetry, and acts. She was one of the founders of the Spiderwoman Theatre Company, an improvisational group in New York City. She played Hamlet's mother in a repertory company production, and sang in Gilbert and Sullivan performances. With her husband, Frank Ray Harjo, she co-produced a program twice a week on WBAI-FM radio called Seeing Red. She also served as drama and literature director at the station. She relaxes late at night by playing tribal music on her 12-string Martin guitar. In 1974, she moved to Washington, D.C. Her daughter, Adriane, studied art in California; her son, Duke, went to preparatory school in Massachusetts in 1989.
In Washington, Harjo served as legislative liaison for an international law firm. Then, under the administration of Jimmy Carter, she became congressional liaison for Indian Affairs. Although she has never attended law school, she obtained a bachelor's degree, and she plans and drafts legislation. As executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), she plans their annual conventions, does fundraising, delivers speeches, writes articles, publishes newsletters, and lobbies on behalf of the nation's one and a half million Native Americans.
During the 1980s, Harjo fought the Reagan-era budget cuts, which sought to eliminate one-third of NCAI's funds. She is especially concerned with the decline in health clinics because of the high mortality rates among Native Americans. She points out in a New York Times article that "the highest reported incidence of diabetes in the world exists on the Gila River Reservation in Arizona ... and an epidemic of hepatitis B in Alaska." Moreover, cancer, suicide, and alcoholism rates among Native Americans have reached alarming proportions.
The organization that Harjo heads so capably was founded on November 16, 1944, in the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Chicago, Illinois, under the sponsorship of D'Arcy McNickle to provide a political voice for Indian interests affected by legislation. Harjo's family helped to establish that collective with Ben Dwight (Choctaw), Archie Phinney (Nez Percé), Charlie Heacock (Rosebud Sioux) and three Cherokee leaders: Lois Harlan, Erma Hicks, and Ruth Muskrat Bronson. One of the earliest victories of NCAI was the eight-week protest mounted by representatives of 80 tribes against Termination, which was repudiated in 1960. The repatriation of sacred objects from museums is a more recent success. As she wrote in Native Peoples: "We are today celebrating the recovery of much of our history. We are greeting sacred, living beings who have been 'museum pieces' during all our lifetimes, honored in our memories and customs, but never seen in their context by anyone living."
- Gamarekian, Barbara, "Working Profiles: Suzan Harjo, Lobbying for a Native Cause," New York Times, April 2, 1986.
- Harjo, Suzan Shown, "Guest Essay," Native Peoples, winter 1994; 5.
- Howard, Jane, "An American Crusader: Suzan Shown Harjo of Washington, D.C.," Lear's, July/August 1989; 135-136.