Sep 3, 2004 in UNITY 2004

Suzan Shown Harjo 'Writes It Right'

by Caroline Perez

Artist, journalist and activist Suzan Shown Harjo can't remember a time when she didn't know about racism.

"I donít have a memory of white people without a memory of white people doing bad things to Indians," Harjo says.

Harjo said she saw her relatives and elders experience name-calling, ridicule, and taunting from children and adults. "I did not get beat up one time, I got beat up many times," Harjo, 59, said. "I had to fight back a lot of times. I did not come to the sudden realization in my 20s or my teens. This is a lifetime of experience."

In a quiet room at the Washington Convention Center at the Unity Journalists of Color Convention last month, Harjo explained how she broke free from the routine of racism in Oklahoma.

Harjo's father was stationed with the military in Naples, Italy when she was 11. She and her brothers lived in southern Europe for several years before returning to their hometown of Tulsa. Much to her surprise, she did not experience the same racism in Europe as she did in the United States.

"No one was trying to hurt us, no one was laughing at us, no one was making fun of us, because we were native people," Harjo said. "Not one person did that. I came back (to Oklahoma) as a mature teenager and there it was -- the same racism, the same animosity, the same envy and jealousy and anger. I escaped the white racism against native people in Oklahoma by being Ė oddly enough Ė in Europe."

Harjo has been a columnist for Indian Country Today for the past four years and credits her mother for encouraging her to write.

"By the time I was three, I could read and write," Harjo said. "With the Cheyenne people, when we do something about something, we say 'Write that up or write that down.' Which means tell someone the story."

"The other thing that was emphasized was donít believe anything you read," Harjo said. "Go out and figure it out yourself, find out yourself and write it right. Write history right. All of that has really lead me to everything I have done. "

Harjo is the founding co-chair of The Howard Simons Fund for American Indian Journalists. She was news director of the American Indian Press Association and communications director for the National Congress of American Indians in the 1970s and editor of the NCAI Sentinel/Bulletin in the 1980s.

Of all her accomplishments, Harjo is most proud of her role in creating the National Museum of American Indian.

"That's one of my babies," Harjo said. "lt took a lot of work doing it. I started working on a whole range of issues in 1967, among them sacred places protection, trying to gain better treatment of our people in museums and popular society. With the NMAI, that was made possible because we were pushing for what we call repatriation laws. In our context, that means return of our dead relatives to museums, return of sacred objects, return of cultural property, and protection for burial grounds."