IAIA awards Suzan Shown Harjo honorary doctorate

Aug 15th, 2011 | By | Category: 23-1: Beyond Racism, Tribal College News
By Kirsten Jasna

HONORARY DOCTOR. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) was the 2011 IAIA honorary doctorate recipient. She is a prominent leader in the arts, culture, and policy. Photo by America Meredith

During the May 2011 commencement at the Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA, Santa Fe, NM) 37 graduates received their diplomas—and one distinguished guest received an honorary doctorate for a lifetime of advocacy and contributions to Native arts and culture.

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/ Hodulgee Muscogee), the 2011 IAIA honorary doctorate recipient, has built a prolific and panoramic career over various professional, creative, and political platforms. She is a prominent leader in the arts, culture, and policy. As a poet, writer, curator, and advocate, she has helped Natives protect many sacred places and recover more than one million acres of land.

“I am honored and humbled and deeply grateful,” Harjo says about the honorary doctorate. “Artwork and people from IAIA have been an important point of inspiration and source of hope since I first visited and made friends there in the 1960s, including with T. C. Cannon, Allen Houser, Fritz Scholder, and Richard Ray Whitman.”

Her many accomplishments and honors include being 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 person to be awarded back-to-back fellowships as a 2004 School of Advanced Research Scholar and Poetry Fellow.

“My children, grandchildren, extended family, and all the coming generations are my primary motivators,” she says. “I do what I do out of a duty to care for them and with respect to our ancestors,” she says of her passion behind her tireless efforts.

Above all, Harjo is a storyteller. Whether the story is realized through verse or through laws protecting Native peoples and lands or through curating art exhibits in which a new definition of Native culture dispels erroneous perceptions, her work is undeniably important her contributions, substantial.

“My work in each area requires traditional, cultural, and personal knowledge; understanding of the literature, history, canon or body of work; and research, analysis, strategy, and inspiration,” she says. “Arts, scholarship, and policy exist in the same universe, although often on different planets. Artists in all these spheres make choices from myriad options before settling on just the right word, color, note, or movement.”

Patsy Phillips, director of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, nominated Harjo for the doctorate. In her nomination letter she states, “She has done more for Indian Country than anyone else I know. No one is more deserving of this recognition.”

Harjo is a founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). She began work in 1967 that led to the NMAI and to repatriation laws and museum reform. Additionally, she directed the NMAI Native Language Project and hosted the NMAI Native Writers Series for its first three seasons. Guest curator of an upcoming NMAI exhibit, “TREATIES: Great Nations In Their Own Words,” she curated the 2007 “American Icons Through Indigenous Eyes” for the District of Columbia Arts Center; the Peabody Essex Museum’s 1996-1997 major exhibition, “Gifts of the Spirit;” and the 1992 “Visions from Native America,” the first Native art exhibit ever shown in the U.S. Senate and House Rotundas.

“I try to carry out or set in motion things that will continue or generate good in the world,” she says. “Many of the things I work on take a very long time, depend on others’ schedules, and would suffer from too much attention, so I work on issues and projects as if they are corn, wild onions, strawberries, or sunflowers, and check back every so often to make sure they’re ripening or blooming or ready for pruning, watering, harvesting, or celebrating, and that no pests have done them harm.”

Over the course of four decades, she has led successful national campaigns for laws promoting and protecting Native nations, sovereignty, children, arts, cultures, languages, and repatriation. She also has been in the forefront of efforts to eliminate so-called Native references in American sports. A member of the Native American Policy Committee of the Barack Obama campaign and an Advisor to the Transition (2008-2009), she was a Carter Administration Special Assistant for Indian Legislation and Liaison and a past executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.

Currently, Harjo is the president of The Morning Star Institute, a national Native rights organization founded in 1984 and based in Washington, DC; she remains steadfast in her art practices.

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