Suzan Harjo has been at the center of just about every major issue involving Indian Country for decades. Last week the National Museum of American Indians honored her with a symposium to explore those contributions.
This is Trahant Reports.
Harjo was a reporter for Pacifica’s WBAI covering the Trail of Broken Treaties and the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1972. She described crossing the police line, radio equipment in hand, as a war zone moment. At one point Russell Means picked up a megaphone and said “it was a good day to die.” He was ready to blow-up the building. Other leaders had a different take, shouting down Means. Oren Lyons spoke and said this was not a war and not even a battle.
The story ended on a peaceful note. The people left the BIA building and went home.
Since then Harjo has practiced journalism, crafting laws, policy work, including a stint as the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, and she has been an uncompromising advocate for religious freedom and the protection of sacred spaces. She’s also one of the primary architects of litigation against the Washington football franchise that would have forced the team to change its name. She’s also one of the founders of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Suzan Harjo remains an active journalist. One piece she wrote for Indian Country Today is telling.
“There’s a widespread notion that ‘tribal sovereignty’ and ‘Indian treaties’ are legal, historical, practical and correct terms,” Harjo wrote in her lede. “Actually, sovereignty is sovereignty, and treaties are treaties, nation to nation is between and among sovereigns; the use of “tribal” or “Indian” or any modifier is both misleading and belittling.”
She framed the history of the country — not Indian Country, mind you, but the United States — in a compact narrative illuminating the historical authority of treaties.
And when I say compact, I am talking about 8,000 words. Imagine reading 8,000 words on a cell phone.
But here’s the thing. Because we are a digital news organization we get data about every story. We know what has been read and what has been ignored. And we know that readers spent 8 minutes and 12 seconds on: “If you don’t know history.”
It was the best read story of the week. And the month. And one of the top stories of the year. All told more than 100,000 people read Harjo’s historical essay.
So much of the world has changed since Suzan Harjo began writing, especially the technology, but what has not … is her passion for informing Native people about our world, our history, and how we fit into a larger global narrative.
I am Mark Trahant.