From Sacred Places to Playing Fields — The Long Struggle for Dignity and Respect

Suzan Shown Harjo

9th Annual Peter A. Jaszi Distinguished Lecture on Intellectual Property 

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Suzan Shown Harjo

October 1, 2020 | 6:00pm
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A single bright thread runs through the half-century+ career of writer-curator-activist Suzan Shown Harjo.  Insistence on the fundamental human right to dignity and respect has unified such causes as repatriating plundered Native American remains and sacred objects, protecting sacred places, building institutions to promote cultural understanding, and eliminating sports teams’ use of “Indian" names, symbols, and mascots.  In its next phase, the struggle for dignity and respect includes advocacy for new laws and changes to existing ones that put Pueblos, Nations and Tribes in their proper place in law and policy, self-determining and in the position of deciding how to safeguard their own heritages, identities, histories, legacies and future.

Suzan Shown Harjo

Suzan Shown Harjo is President of the Morning Star Institute, an advocacy group she founded in 1984 for Native culture and education. Her name is most often associated with the successful trademark cancellation proceeding against the Washington football franchise, a request she initiated in 1992, but saw tied up in federal courts for over two decades. 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. 

Harjo's 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. 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, and accomplished scholar.

Harjo was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor - the nation's highest civilian honor - in 2014.

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