Grace of Water, Focus of Rock
"Poetry appeals to me," says Suzan Shown Harjo, "because it can have the grace of water and the focus of rock, even in the same piece, and it accommodates both facts and color in the same space."
A published poet for more than 50 years, Suzan remembers, "When I was 12 years old a grown up Italian magazine published one of my poems." She was living in Naples, Italy, where her Muscogee father was stationed with NATO's Allied Forces Southern Europe. "Our family traveled to the battle sites and burial grounds from North Africa to Monte Cassino, where Dad and our relatives in the 45th Infantry (Thunderbird) Division fought and many died in World War Two. Some of them could not be found and are noted only as names on marble walls. We sang their names and my poem spoke to that."
Born in El Reno in Cheyenne treaty territory in western Oklahoma, Ms. Harjo was raised on Muscogee allotment land outside of Beggs in the eastern part of the state. "I began writing poetry because of the poetics and density of Cheyenne and Muscogee oral history as related by my Cheyenne and Muscogee relatives," she explains. "There was an orderliness, consistency and elegance that sounded to me the way poetry is structured on the page. There also was a deliberate use of silence for emphasis that not only lends itself to poetic form, but is poetic form."
Now a Capitol Hill resident, she has developed key federal Indian law in Washington, DC since 1975, including important national policy advances for the protection of Native American cultures, languages and the arts, such as the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act; the 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act; the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act; and the 1996 Executive Order on Indian Sacred Sites.
The School of Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico, awarded her with unprecedented back-to-back fellowships as the 2004 Eric and Barbara Dobkin Native American Artist Fellow and as a Summer Scholar. Upon announcing the fellowships, the SAR wrote the following: "An innate passion for life, Native rights, and traditional and cultural advocacy govern Ms. Harjo's commitment to a public life. They also shape her radiant orchestrations of poetry, which embody her quest for memory, honor, and knowledge. This talented poet, writer, lecturer, curator, and policy advocate has helped Native peoples recover more than one million acres of land and numerous sacred places in the United States."
During her residency at the SAR in Santa Fe, she wrote an oral history poetry collection recounting the peoples, ways, forces, dynamics that brought about the repatriation law and policies. She describes these poems as "the dreams, nightmares and visions that made us make the history we did."
"In addition to her work in the public arena, her poems evoke a grace and passion embracing all patterns of life," reads the SAR statement. "They are an art form nurtured by her family, a rich cultural heritage, and her private and public activities. She participates in ceremonies at both Cheyenne and Muscogee sacred places. Perhaps it is these experiences of the sacred that inspire her words and give them agency and intellectual and emotional power.
"Suzan Harjo's poems give the reader a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction, a feeling that she has achieved perfection. They also carry an essential quality of passion. Many of her poems present life and death struggles and emphasize renewal, honor, and respect for all human activity. In general, her work illustrates that this modern writer, at least, does not think on so abstract a level that she has lost those human qualities that speak to family, traditional ways, and spiritual inspiration and emotion. Embodied in all her work is an underlying cultural structure that leads one into territories that may be unfamiliar, yet the reader is nonetheless astounded by the beauty within."
A prominent Native American leader in the arts, culture and policy, she was the first Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholar (University of Arizona, 2008), the first Native woman to receive the Montgomery Fellowship (Dartmouth College, 1992) and the first Native person selected as a Stanford University Visiting Mentor (1996). Ms. Harjo's poetry is published in myriad anthologies and journals. A veteran broadcaster and award-winning columnist, Ms. Harjo served as "Seeing Red" Producer and Drama & Literature Director for Pacifica's WBAI-FM Radio, New York City, and as News Director of the American Indian Press Association.
In New York during the 1970s she was selected as one of 20 American women writers, along with Nikki Giovani and Alice Walker, for "Women/Voices at Town Hall," the literary kick-off event to International Women's Day. She presented her poem, gathering rites, in which she explores "some ways Native women have of being in the world." She later presented the work on the West Steps of the U.S. Capitol and, most recently, for the Ladyfest DC celebration of International Women's Day in 2002 in Washington. She also read in the 1960s and 1970s in New York City at Joseph Papp's Theater, with musicians David Amram and Richie Havens and actors James Earl Jones, Geraldine Page and Rip Torn, and presented her poetry at The Public Theater with Spiderwoman Theater in 2009.
A Founding Trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, she began work in 1967 that led to the NMAI, to repatriation laws and to museum reform; and she directed the NMAI Native Language Project and hosted the NMAI Native Writers Series for its first three seasons. Guest Curator of the upcoming NMAI exhibit, TREATIES: Great Nations In Their Own Words, she also curated the 1992 Visions from Native America, the first Native art exhibit ever shown in the U.S. Senate and House Rotundas. A former Carter Administration Special Assistant for Indian Legislation and Liaison and a past Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians, she is President of The Morning Star Institute, a national Native rights organization founded in 1984 and based in Washington, DC. She served on the Native American Policy Committee for Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign and as an Advisor to his Transition in 2008-2009.