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Discussion with Poetry by Suzan Shown Harjo

’Reflections on Repatriation in Light of the French Judicial Decision on Hopi Sacred Objects and Cultural Patrimony’

August 15, 2013 10:30 am through 11:30 am

“Poetry appeals to me 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.”  --Suzan Shown Harjo

 A published poet for more than 55 years, Suzan Shown Harjo remembers her first published poem: “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 (Creek) father and Cheyenne mother were 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, our relatives and my parents’ Chilocco Indian School classmates fought in the 45th Infantry (Thunderbird) Division, and where many died in WWII. Many are buried there, but some could not be found and are noted only as names on marble walls. We sang their names and burned cedar and sage for them, and my poem spoke to that.” 

 Born in El Reno in Cheyenne treaty territory in western Oklahoma, her mother’s great-grandfather, Chief Bull Bear, was leader of the Dog Men Society and the first signatory to the 1867 Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty with the U.S. and the Arapaho Nation. Also raised with grandparents on Muscogee allotment land outside of Beggs in the eastern part of the state, her ancestors were delegates to the 1790 Treaty of New York among Muscogee Nations and the U.S., and later were removed to Indian Territory. She is an enrolled Cheyenne citizen of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes and is Hodulgee (Wind Clan) Muscogee of Nuyakv Ground.

 “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 is an orderliness, consistency and elegance that sounds to me the way poetry is structured on the page. There also is a deliberate use of silence for emphasis that not only lends itself to poetic form, but is poetic form.”

 A Capitol Hill resident, she has developed key federal Indian law in Washington, DC, since 1975, including the most important national policy advances in the modern era for the protection of Native American cultures, languages and the arts, such as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act; the National Museum of the American Indian Act; the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act; and the Executive Order on Indian Sacred Sites.

 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 is General Editor of the publication of the same title that will accompany the exhibit, which is scheduled to open on September 21, 2014.

 Her writings are widely published and were exhibited in Blood of the Sun: Artists Respond to the Poetry of Suzan Shown Harjo (curated by America Meredith, Ahalenia Studios, Santa Fe, 2011). Her poetry appears in myriad anthologies – the most recent of which is Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time: Indigenous Thoughts Concerning the Universe (Renegade Planets Publishing, 2013) – as well as in journals, magazines, newspapers and textbooks.

 She has not published collected works of her own. “There always were too many priorities, from raising children to making history,” says Suzan. “I write Native Peoples’ poetry and, as long as my poems were published in some quick fashion, I felt as if they’d reached the needed audience at the needed time.” Her most popular poem, “jumping through the hoops of history,” was read by Native people in hundreds of events in the ramp up to the 1992 Columbus Quincentenary.