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Suzan Harjo is a Native American rights activist, writer, lecturer, and poet from the Hodulgee Muskogee and Cheyenne tribes. She helped recover more than 1 million acres of stolen tribal lands and served as a liaison between the United States Congress and Native American tribes. Suzan acted as the main plaintiff in Harjo v. Pro Football, Inc., the successful lawsuit imploring the Washington Redskins to change their name. Harjo’s victory against the Redskins influenced several more football teams to change their offensive names.

Childhood and Family

Suzan Shown (later Harjo) was born in El Reno, Oklahoma, on June 2, 1945. Her father was of the Hodulgee Muskogee tribe and her mother was of the Cheyenne.[1] She grew up on a Muskogee Reserve in eastern Oklahoma near the city of Beggs. She began writing poetry at a young age under the influence of her Muskogee and Cheyenne relatives and the poetic nature of the cultures’ oral histories.

Harjo published her first poem at only age 12 in Naples, Italy. The family lived there when her father was assigned to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s Allied Forces Southern Europe in the 45th Infantry Division called Thunderbird. She lived there between 1957 and 1961 before returning with her family to New York City.[2]

Early Activism

In July 1965, Suzan Shown visited New York City’s Museum of the American Indian with her mother. Her mother recognized one of the outfits on display as the clothing she made for her grandfather to be buried in as well as a buckskin dress of a Cheyenne girl with a bullet hole in the belly. Shown’s mother asked her daughter to retrieve the items and bury them properly.

Shown contacted the National Congress of American Indians along with religious leaders from the Arapaho, Lakota, and Cheyenne tribes. They met at Bear Butte, South Dakota on June 1967 to discuss how to repatriate items of significant importance, encourage museum reform, protect Native American languages, ancestral sites, and sacred places. They also discussed the idea of a National Museum of the American Indian. In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) passed after it was first dreamed up at that meeting in 1967.[3]

In the mid-1960s, Suzan Shown met and married her husband, Frank Harjo.[4] She also began volunteering at New York City’s WBAI radio station, the first to focus on Native American affairs in a program Suzan Harjo called Seeing Red. The program broadcast from 12am-4am and they talked, played music, and took telephone calls. They allowed Native Americans to vent their concerns in the studio or on the air via telephone to several million listeners in New York, California, Texas, and certain other networks in the U.S. and Canada.[5]

Washington, D.C. and Congress

Suzan Shown Harjo brought enough Native American tribes together to get the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act passed.

In 1974, Suzan Harjo relocated to Washington, D.C., with her husband and infant son after the family suffered a car wreck, an armed robbery, and carbon-monoxide poisoning. She replaced her friend, Richard LaCourse, as the American Indian Press Association’s news director and chief fundraiser. She then joined the National Congress of American Indians as their legislative and communications director.

Harjo joined the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter and acted as a liaison between Carter and Native American leaders. When Carter became U.S. President in 1978, he named Harjo the Liaison and Special Assistant for Indian Legislation. She supported the fishing and hunting rights of Native Americans on traditional lands, contract and voting rights, and religious rights. Her extensive advocacy led to the passing of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.[6]

National Congress of American Indians

The National Congress of American Indians was formed in 1944 as a nonprofit organization focused on the protecting the rights of Native Americans and Alaska Natives. From 1984-1989, Suzan Harjo served as the NCAI’s Executive Director after leaving her liaison position. She still worked closely with Congress to support Native American rights to native lands.

Harjo also focused on education and health care access on the Native American reserves. She pressured Congress to increase funding for the NCAI’s educational goals while obtaining government documents that discussed the state of Native American assistance programs. Harjo continued her work to repatriate sacred artifacts from museums back to their true owners during this time. She joined together hundreds of other Native American leaders to demand national reform and legislation to protect these items.[7] Their success resulted in the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989 and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.[8]

The Morning Star Institute

In 1984, Suzan Harjo founded the Morning Star Institute in memory of her husband who just died. She helps lobby and secure the rights and protections for Native American culture, research, and artistic expression. She has returned more than 1 million acres of land to Taos, Lakota, Cheyenne, and several other Native American nations. She extended the statute of limitations for Native Americans to sue against third parties and guaranteed the tax status of Native American tribes.[9]

Harjo and her husband attended a Redskins game in 1974 and received verbal abuse from some of the fans due to their Native American heritage. Harjo believed this came from the negative portrayal of Native Americans encouraged by the offensive logo. In 1992, Stephen Baird, a lawyer from Minneapolis, contacted Harjo about ending the use of the logo.

On September 12, 1992, they filed Harjo et al v. Pro Football, Inc. with the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to demand the cancellation of the Redskins trademark. They won the case unanimously, but Pro Football appealed and won the appeal. On June 18, 2014, the PTO revoked the Washington Redskins registration and they have yet to succeed in an appeal.[10]

On November 10, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama awarded Suzan Shown Harjo the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her outstanding successes in protecting Native American lands and civil rights.[11]



Harjo, S. S. (2009). Grace of Water, Focus of Rock. Talking Stick: Native Arts Quarterly, 12(4).[2]

Walker, H. (2014, June 18). Meet The Native American Grandmother Who Just Beat The Washington Redskins. Business Insider.[3]

Weston, J., & Harjo, S. (2010, December). Suzan Harjo. Cultural Survival.[4]

WIMN. (2006, April ). WIMN’s Voices: Suzan Shown Harjo. Retrieved January 31, 2017, from Women in Media and News.[5]


  1. Sonneborn, L. (2007). A to Z of American Indian Women. New York: Facts On File.
  2. Harjo, 2009
  3. Weston & Harjo, 2010
  4. Walker, 2014
  5. Weston & Harjo, 2010
  6. Weston & Harjo, 2010
  7. Weston & Harjo, 2010
  8. WIMN, 2006
  9. WIMN, 2006
  10. Walker, 2014
  11. Schulman, K. (2015, August 12). President Obama Announces the Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients. The White House.[1]

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