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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Oklahoma-born American Indian Activist Will Receive Honorary Degree
by Ken Raymond News OK

Suzan 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 peoples.

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 exhibitions.

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."

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