Los Angeles Times Interview : Suzan Shown Harjo : Fighting to Preserve the Legacy --and Future--of Native Americans

<i> Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times</i>

Native Americans are an invisible minority except around Thanksgiving or when a Western hits the big screen. Their numbers are small. The 1990 Census counted just under two million--up from 250,000 at the turn of this century but way down from the 50 million who lived here in 1492, the year Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. Although integral to the history of this nation, they are rarely championed, except for their kindness to the Pilgrims centuries ago. They are routinely ridiculed when sports teams take the field.

The Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves and Florida State Seminoles are among thousands of similarly named professional, college and high-school teams, complete with dehumanizing mascots dressed in feathers and war paint. These cartoonish caricatures either lead “war cries” or do the Tomahawk Chop. It’s enough to make one sports-loving Cheyenne woman turn off her TV.

It’s also enough to make Suzan Shown Harjo take her fight to court, and to Congress. Harjo, who heads the Washington-based Morning Star Institute, is the lead petitioner in a lawsuit filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to force the Washington Redskins to change its name, mascot and logo. She also works on legislation to protect the rights of America’s indigenous people; preserve their languages and traditions; reduce their high levels of poverty, alcoholism and unemployment, and safeguard their sacred lands.


An advocate of the arts, Harjo is a founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened its first facility last month in New York. The main museum will be built in Washington on the Capitol Mall between the Botanical Gardens and the Air and Space Museum sometime after the year 2000. But Harjo isn’t waiting until the next century to get her message out.

To educate young Americans, she helped develop “Red Thunder,” a Native rock band, and Indian rock music videos, including “Makoce Wakan: Sacred Earth,” a special that runs often on VH-1, a cable station. She wrote the lyrics for the title song, “Sacred Earth,” which was released nationally last week on Eagle Thunder Records.

Harjo, 49, has written poetry since her childhood in rural Oklahoma and Naples, Italy, where her father was stationed in the Army with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. She worked in radio and theater production in New York before moving to Washington 20 years ago to work for the Native American Press Assn. news service, which she left to work for the National Congress of American Indians. Like most Washingtonians, Harjo also did a stint in government. During the Carter Administration, she worked as a congressional liaison for Indian affairs.

The Morning Star Foundation was founded 10 years ago in memory of her husband Frank Ray Harjo, a radio producer. A widow and the mother of two adult children, she refuses to be invisible in the nation’s Capitol.

Question: Is Thanksgiving a difficult time for you?

Answer: Well, no. The spirit of Thanksgiving should be the spirit of all people, all the time. As a traditional Indian woman, one thing I’m obliged to do is greet the day and end the day with prayers of thanks for everything and every being of Mother Earth, not just for the people but for all the creatures and beings that live. . . .

I don’t have a problem with Thanksgiving as such, if people would go forward in that spirit. I do have a problem with some of the stereotypical imaging of Native people, which occurs around (Thanksgiving), that continues to keep us in the past tense and suggest we are anomalies in the present with no real future.

Q: What kind of stereotypes?

A: On Thanksgiving, the image is of the benevolent “Noble Savage” giving land, giving food, giving a home and shelter to people who presumably on the other 364 days steal it from the “savage.” At least it is a benevolent stereotype, but still it is not useful to have anything that is stereotypical or keeps people positioned sometime in the last century.

Q: Is there no good stereotype?

A: There is no such thing as a good stereotype. Whether a stereotype is good or bad, it still reduces people or a person to a consumable, easily digestible, prejudged image or word. It sets up a system of prejudice either for or against a person or a people and, in that way, denies the humanity of that person or people . . . or it wrongly characterizes people.

Q: How do you fight stereotypes?

A: By each person trying to develop their own peace in the world and their own respect, then according that to every situation and person they encounter. That’s everything, from asking people how they wish you to address them to how they wish you to behave toward them--then you just do it.

Q: How do you prefer to be characterized? By race or ethnicity?

A: I want to be known as a Cheyenne woman who is also culturally Muscogee.

Q: As a group?

A: I prefer Native people, because we are an indigenous people. Indian is the term of art in American law, and it’s hard to get away from that. It’s the term of art in the Constitution. It’s flat out wrong, but it is hard to get around it.

Some use Native American, but a lot of people consider themselves Native American if they aren’t first-generation people here, and, of course, we predate the Americas by a millennium or so. . . .

We haven’t decided on a collective term. We’re trying to get people not to call us bad names like “Redskin,” a “buck” or a “brave” if you see an Indian man. Or if you see an Indian woman, not to call us “maidens” or “squaws.” That’s a word, Algonquin in origin, that means vagina, which the French and British started using to refer to all Indian women.

Q: What is the status of your suit against the Washington Redskins?

A: We won an important first round. Pro Football Inc. tried to have the case dismissed, but they were struck down by the U.S. Patent and Trade Office this year. We were told to proceed.

Q: Did you try to talk with the owner of the Redskins before filing suit?

A: When I was the director of the National Congress of American Indians, we tried to contact Jack Kent Cooke to meet with us, and he just ignored us, just flat out didn’t respond. . . . Then along about 1987 or ’88, he responded through a wire-service story, saying there’s not a chance in hell the name is going to be changed, because it would cost too much money and the name is not derogatory, which is pretty arrogant of him. It’s not derogatory to him because he’s a rich, old white man. He’s in another class, other than the offended class, so it’s not his place to say it’s not derogatory.

Q: Have you had more success with college teams?

A: We have collectively--I’m a supporter from the sidelines--in getting rid of Little Red from the University of Oklahoma. . . . .The Stanford Indians changed their name. The Dartmouth Indians changed their name . . .

I’m really heartened by a lot of high schools around the country that are changing their team names from Indians and Redskins. I was just out in Louisville, Ky., at the request of the Jefferson County School Board, to talk with students at three high schools that are named after Indians. . . . The worst one is the Redskins of Seneca High School. Their mascot is actually drawn by Al Cap, who gave them permission to use Lonesome Polecat, a real Little Red Sambo image, even worse than Chief Wahoo of the Indians in Cleveland. The county directed them to remove all offensive mascots and images and names . . . by Dec. 31. That is a really good sign of America growing up and shining a light on racism.

Q: Why is this important?

A: It’s awfully important to clear away this underbrush of stereotypical images and cartoonish portrayals of us so that we can protect our images . . .

It would be wonderful to have big- budget films actually done by Indians, not just Indians as the scouts, as we’ve seen in this modern crop of movies, but Indians as the directors, the producers and in the premier spots--Indians in the lead roles--not as the sidekick in a Lone Ranger and Tonto relationship, Native people actually portraying what it is they wish to portray about themselves.

Q: What movies would you single out?

A: Hollywood seems to go through stages . . . Despite the fact they used a lot of Lakota people throughout “Dances With Wolves,” it still says, at the end of the movie, that’s the end of the Sioux Nation in the 1890s. For heavens sakes! The Sioux Nation is the third-largest Indian nation by population in the U.S.

You can see that in “Cheyenne Autumn.” The two Geronimo movies declared the Apaches dead, buried and gone at the end of the last century. . . . You can see that in the “The Last of the Mohicans.” When the punch line is the people died a long time ago, the message is, say a prayer for the dead and wring your hands, and not that there is something that can be accomplished in this time and someone has any responsibility.

Q: What’s wrong with these portrayals?

A: The longer I work in public policy, the more important I see this issue of telling our own stories, because members of Congress are no different than the rest of Americans in having these stereotypes about Native people. Public policy is not done in any positive way for cartoons, or for people who are already dead, or people who don’t have a future . . .

There is a whole different language about us. We don’t eat corn--we eat maize. We don’t walk, skip or jump--we roam. We don’t have music or songs--we have chants. We don’t have church services--we have rites. All that suggests we are either not here or we are so different that we don’t fit any place.

Q: Can you think of any positive portrayals in movies or television?

A: “Northern Exposure” does a great job. Each of the Native people is a distinctive person and has their own level of cultural intrigue.

Arthur Penn did a good job in “Little Big Man,” for the most part. He got a whole lot of stuff right. His massacre scene was excellent. It was about one small child and how it might affect that individual, and the pony screaming and how everything seemed suspended in time . . . and how legends grow from historical fact to tall tale.

Kevin Costner, in “Dances With Wolves,” got the kids right. He took little kids beyond the baby-seal stage, which is how Native children are usually portrayed. He has little boy-kids laughing, playing . . . They were doing things that kids do, and kids are the same, no matter what color, or what culture or what side of the border.

Most of “Thunderheart” was good. It had some nice touches about Indian humor and how our elders aren’t just revered because they have magic. They are revered because they make you laugh, they make you see the world in a different way.

The problem with most of these movies is they are still about the good-hearted, good-looking white guy. The stories are secondarily about Indians. . . .

I understand that white people make the movies, and it’s not going to be a movie about someone but themselves. That’s why more of our people have to get into the writing and directing and producing end. It’s not that all Native people are going to like what one Indian director does, or even 20 Indian directors, but at least it will be an authentic voice, first-person, instead of about us.

Q: How do you make authentic images popular?

A: There’s a difference between what’s good and what’s popular. . . . There is an audience who doesn’t want to be challenged, doesn’t care if it’s authentic, that usually wants something that reinforces their own prejudices and stereotypes and maybe wouldn’t recognize an authentic voice if they heard it or an authentic image if they saw it. . . .

“Schindler’s List” could not have been made by someone who is not Jewish and does not have the sensibilities of Steven Spielberg. If Oliver Stone had not been in Vietnam, how could he do his Vietnam movies?

Q: Why do you do what you do?

A: I’m a mother. I have a daughter who is 29 and a son who is 21. What I do is because of them. My parents did stuff for me. We’re always doing things several generations out to protect the rights of our people, through our families. That’s really how I define myself. I’m a mother.