A Reason to be Hopeful: Lessons from Suzan Harjo

Suzan Harjo
Suzan Harjo

Leading Native American rights activist Suzan Harjo was at Mitchell Hamline Law School earlier this week to talk about the future of Indian Law under a Trump administration.

She spent most of her time talking about the Reagan and Bush years.Her message was, even thought those were difficult times, too, advocates were still able to get major legislative wins.

The Reagan years were particularly bad for Indian people, with Reagan trying to cut the federal Indian budget by a third, and privatize the Indian Trust money, she said. Regardless, advocates were able to get passage of the National Museum for the Native American Act (1989) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) (both signed by President Bush.)

Connecting the dots to today’s situation and worries about the Trump administration, she offered the following advice: “In addition to a combative strategy, have some positive goals,” she said. “You never know how powerful you are until you exercise your power.”

Harjo was not being naive about the challenges ahead, and said “we will see the the depths of racism and sexism in America.” But she offered  some history– both humerus and tragic — on how they got legislative wins in difficult times.

She recalled one strategy to try to get momentum for the National Museum of the American Indian. The idea wasn’t getting much traction. Then they got the idea to start a bidding war between New York and the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. to be the host city.

New York already had the Museum of the American Indian. Someone knew H. Ross Perot and knew that he wanted a world class museum in Dallas, Harjo said. The thought was if Perot would make a bid on the collection of the New York colection, he would get everyone’s attention.

Sure enough, Perot agreed to do it, even though he knew he would not get the collection. He offered $75 million. The New York Times was all over the story, Within a day, New York Mayor Ed Koch was on television saying: “This collection is a New York treasure. We can’t let it go to Dallas,” Harjo recalled.

“We had a bidding war,” she said. The museum eventually ended up in Washington D.C. as part of the Smithsonian.

Coincidentally, it was on this day in history, Nov. 16, 1990, that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act went into effect. According to the Wikipedia summary:

The Act requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American “cultural items” to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. Cultural items include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. …

This was an incredibly huge win. As Wikipedia continues:

Since the legislation passed, the human remains of approximately 32,000 individuals have been returned to their respective tribes. Nearly 670,000 funerary objects, 120,000 unassociated funerary objects, and 3,500 sacred objects have been returned.

Harjo had worked on repatriation when she worked in the Carter administration. They worked hard to push for the repatriation law after Carter lost, and eventually got a deal by threatening a lawsuit. The fact was that the Smithsonian had received Indian human remains through barbarous acts by soldiers.

This Sept. 13, 1989 New York Times article headlined: Smithsonian to Give Up Indian Remains quotes Harjo saying that 4,500 of the Smithsonians remains were from Indian people “whose heads were taken at the turn of the century for what they called the Indian Crania Study.”

Ms. Harjo said she had learned just this summer that the bones of some of her ancestors were in the Smithsonian. They were Cheyennes whom, Ms. Harjo said, American soldiers massacred in November 1864 at Sand Creek, Colorado. ”They lopped off some of their heads,” Ms. Harjo said, adding that the heads became part of the Smithsonian collection.

Looking forward, Harjo said there are “mighty things that we have not tried.” She suggested that tribes do a better job of meeting with judges on a regular basis and educating them about the importance of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to keep the law from getting “blown up”. (ICWA came in response to the large number of Native children who were being adopted out of Native families and into white families and losing their culture and connection to community. ICWA puts a priority on keeping American Indian children with American Indian families.)

Harjo took questions after her talk. One audience member asked what advice she would give to her younger self, if she could. Harjo said she would have spent more time visiting with the people she was working with, and with mentors. “It takes more than a thank you note,” she said. “I regret not spending more time with [Sen.] Barry Goldwater, [Sen.] Daniel Inouye, and [Rep.] Mo Udall, people who dedicated their lives to our causes.”

She also would tell her younger self to spend more time educating “our side of the table.” When the repatriation law past, there weren’t one in 20 Native American who knew what it meant,” she said. At that point, they weren’t even calling it repatriation, instead, they were simply calling it: “Put it back.” “We hadn’t developed our lexicon,” she said.

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