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Harjo gives Native American Month Convocation

<rds matter” was the message that Susan Harjo sent to campus during her convocation presentation on Friday, October 29. Harjo, a well-known author, poet, and activist for Native American rights, stated that “the U.S, has broken treaty with the native people.” She continued, “I am here to give a talk today about treaties and words and the word.”

Harjo, part Cheyenne and part Muscogee, has helped Native American people recover more than a million acres of land. Her convocation speech last Friday addressed U.S. relations with the American Indians, a topic about which many people have only basic knowledge.

She began with the views of the first president of the United States, George Washington. He did not believe in moving the Native Americans, she said, as he and his men were fed and clothed by the Oneida during the Revolutionary War. The treaty he made with the Native people was generally well-respected until the American citizens in Georgia, the Muscogee homeland, discovered gold in the region. Upon the discovery, the removal of Native Americans began. Harjo explained that, as a senator, Andrew Jackson had helped draft and pass the infamous Indian Removal Acts, so that they were awaiting presidential signature when he was elected. Historians, she said, “never write about this, and I’m surprised they missed it,” because even today, she joked, “nothing happens that quickly in Washington.”

After describing some of the hardships of the Indian removals, Harjo then introduced one of the main points of her speech: the importance of words. When American Indians such as the Navajo agreed to become “civilized,” they could not properly conceive what that would mean for themselves and their culture. “To U.S. representatives, [civilization] meant Christian-only, English-only life, but the Indians could not understand that,” Harjo explained. Native American life was complicated, and intricate, with many different cultural and spiritual facets, and “civilization turned into a very dark thing that undermined and undercut these pieces.”

Here Harjo turned to a more personal topic: her family. Her great great-uncle, a Cheyenne representative, met with Abraham Lincoln to pledge neutrality in the Civil War; on his way back, he was brutally murdered by white settlers, even though he was carrying a peace medal from President Lincoln. Her great-grandfather, the great Cheyenne chief Bull Bear, was a mystical healer who “healed with colors,” an art that had taken generations to perfect, and that he had spent years learning. “That’s civilization,” Harjo said. “That’s sophistication. That’s magic of a higher order. No wonder people looked at this word civilization and saw little harm in it.”

In the late 1800s, the “civilizing” of the Native Americans worsened. Native Americans were confined to reservations, unable to visit their sacred places or engage in their religions. These so-called civilization regulations “were hideous,” Harjo declared, and they remained in nearly full effect until the 1930s. Native American children were put into American schools, and in 1902, an official act was passed that forbade American Indian parents from re-instituting their own practices against those taught at the “progressive” white schools. Those who disobeyed were arrested and branded as hostiles, ringleaders of disruption, and other names. Harjo commented wryly, “I wear those terms as a badge of honor.”
One of the children who attended these schools was Harjo’s own father, who began school at age nine. Because he spoke Muscogee, he was often beat by other students – first with boards, and then eventually with leather straps when the boards were ruled illegal. Despite the awful treatment he received at the hands of the American school system, her father still joined the army, learning eleven languages in Army school and eventually fighting in World War II with many other Native American soldiers. Harjo sardonically noted that many of the Nazis believed that the Indians would not fight well, because they shouldn’t have had any love left for the United States. Such claims, Harjo said, simply “show how easy it is to miss the whole point of origin, of place…these are our homelands. So of course we were going to fight for them.”

Following the end of her speech, Harjo further explained about her own heritage and work in a brief question-and-answer session with the audience. Harjo lectures, writes speeches, and helps draft legislation to protect the interests of Native Americans, and although many of the people she helps will never know her name. However, she explained, she is “validated” by her work and efforts to keep moving Native American rights in a better direction.

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