Shown Harjo, an Oklahoma native who has supported tribal rights
for decades, will receive an honorary doctorate May 13 from the
Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico.
The award recognizes Harjo (Cheyenne and
Hodulgee Muscogee) for a lifetime of advocacy on behalf of native
As a poet, writer and speaker, Harjo has
used words to champion American Indian art and culture. As a policy
shaper, she has helped tribes reclaim a million acres of land and
has lobbied successfully for laws protecting religious freedom and
returning remains and artifacts from public institutions to natives.
She was a member of President Barack Obama's
Native American Policy Committee and a special assistant for Indian
legislation under President Jimmy Carter. She is a founding trustee
of the National Museum of the American Indian and has curated major
Despite that, she is perhaps best known
for filing a lawsuit aimed at forcing the Washington Redskins football
team to change its name and logo, arguing that "redskins"
is a demeaning term. In the wake of the lawsuit, other athletic
teams and universities agreed to use less offensive names and mascots.
Currently Harjo, 65, is the president
and director of the Morning Star Institute, an American Indian advocacy
group, in Washington, D.C.
"I admire her tenacity," said
Patsy Phillips, who nominated Harjo for the honorary degree. "She
keeps doing this work and doesn't seem to tire."
Harjo, who could not be reached for comment,
said in a news release that family fuels her efforts.
"My children, grandchildren, extended
family and all the coming generations are my primary motivators,"
she said. "I do what I do out of a duty of care for them and
with respect to our ancestors."
The degree will be Harjo's first
honorary doctorate, said Phillips, the director of the Museum of
Contemporary Native Arts, a center of the Institute of American
Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M.
Phillips said she brought Harjo and American
Indian notables Rick West and N. Scott Momaday to the institute
to speak to students and was "stunned" after the session
to learn Harjo was never given a doctorate.
"I decided then and there to nominate
her," Phillips said.
The notion met with immediate approval.
"I got 19 letters of support from
the most powerful people in Indian Country," Phillips said.
"That's pretty significant, because only three were required.
They wanted to make sure she got the degree."
In one of the letters, retired U.S. Sen.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell praised Harjo for her more than 40 years
of advocacy and said: "She is a fine poet and curator, and
I am pleased that more and more people have gotten to know and admire
her creative work. Suzan is an unselfish person who has accomplished
much on behalf of others in her life, all while struggling with
all the challenges of being a single working mother, widowed at
37, when her youngest child was only 9."
In another, acclaimed author and professor
Gerald Vizenor wrote: "Suzan is indeed a public intellectual
in that honored and distinctive tradition of a serious intellectual,
communicator, cultural interpreter, poet and prudent policy activist
in the interest of diverse native interests and communities. She
is determined, gracious and decisive in public discourse, and she
is highly respected as a persuasive envoy of the crucial political
and cultural issues that face natives, the nation and the world."
Harjo will be honored at commencement
ceremonies at 11 a.m. May 31. She will join 36 graduates as they
accept their diplomas at the arts institute, which is described
on its website as the only four-year school "devoted to contemporary
Native American and Alaska Native arts."