Suzan Shown Harjo: Nobody Gives Us Sovereignty: Busting Stereotypes and Walking the Walk

American Indian Studies Program

The first-ever speaker in the Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholars Series, Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) shares her personal perspective on the life and legacy of the late Vine Deloria, Jr., and provides an overview of her work protecting sacred places and fighting racist stereotypes that demean Native Americans. She also calls for all Native Americans to commit in some form or fashion to joining the struggle against enduring colonial forces that seek to destroy tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Harjo, Suzan Shown. "Nobody Gives Us Sovereignty: Busting Stereotypes and Walking the Walk." Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholars Series. American Indian Studies, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 9, 2008. Presentation.

“Thank you so much, Tom [Holm] and Tsianina [Lomawaima] and Tarissa [Spoonhunter] for getting me here and arranging things. I met Vine Deloria Jr.; I met Vine Deloria Sr. first in South Dakota and then in New York in the early 60s. I met Vine Jr. in 1965 in this state in Scottsdale where the National Congress of American Indians [NCAI] was having its convention. And I came down to Gila River because I have relatives there on our Cheyenne side, a boarding school alliance between a Cheyenne relative of my mother’s and a Pima woman and he was captured and taken to Gila River after boarding school. So I have a lot of relatives at Gila River who are also Cheyenne. And so I had my first child and took her to Gila River to see some of our relatives there. And while there, saw that NCAI was meeting in Scottsdale so I went over to talk with Vine Deloria since he was the executive director. And I had had a problem with some sacred objects that were in the Museum of the American Indian in New York and I wanted to get them out. So with my baby on my hip I went over and talked to Vine who was our most important Indian on the national scene and I was kind of skeptical about him. I thought, ‘Well, this is another politician and he wouldn’t have gotten in that job if he hadn’t been a politician,’ and I was skeptical of all politicians at that moment. And so he took a moment to talk with me and I asked him about, ‘How do you go about getting a sacred item back from a museum?’ And he said, ‘I really don’t know. I have no idea how to do that.’ He said, ‘But what I’ll do is help you think about it.’ So he had my attention because he said, ‘I don’t know anything about that’ and that he would help me think about it. I thought that was just wonderful and that was the beginning of a very great and long friendship.

We worked together on all sorts of things. I worked with Vine on guerrilla actions that had nothing to do with my background or experience and he did the same and we taught each other a lot. And I think I learned a lot more from him than he did from me but I taught him a few things as well. And when years passed and I wanted to, I’d been asked by Joe De la Cruz who was a friend of ours, very great leader from the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington State, if I would be director of the National Congress of American Indians and so I was really inclined to do it for a lot of reasons. The two most important ones were because Joe had asked and because Vine had been director of NCAI. So I talked to Vine about it and asked if I should do it and he said, ‘Don’t do it. It’s a terrible job.’ And he said, ‘What happened to me will happen to you. I found myself under my desk crying, just sobbing because I knew there was so much to do for the Indian people and I could do so little about it.’ And I thought that was just an amazing thing to say and said so much about his humanity and I thought about it for awhile and then I called him and said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do the job.’ And I was a little concerned about what his reaction might be but instantly he said, ‘Great! Let’s get to work. Now here’s what we need to do.’ And whenever Vine said, ‘Here’s what we need to do’, he meant, ‘Here’s what you have to do.’ But he always meant too that he would help you think about it. He would help you figure it out.

So I did that job and Vine was my closest confidant in that job and he was right about it being a terrible job. So no matter who’s in that position, I never say a bad word about them in public. So if you want me to say anything bad about NCAI director you have to catch me in private in a weak moment. But in public, it is a terrible job and you are aware of so many needs and how little you can do to address anything and everything. But I have to say that on my watch we did a lot of amazing things including getting the National Museum of the American Indian, getting repatriation law, getting gaming law, not small stuff, all of that. So I’m very proud of my tenure there and I have to say that I didn’t spend any time under my desk sobbing. That’s because I couldn’t fit under my desk. But that’s not to say that it was without tears.

We all in our traditions have a formality that we need to go through and I have to say before going farther in this public talk how I have to greet you with condolences. The Iroquois have something called The Wiping of the Tears ceremony. All of our peoples have that in our traditions and I’m reminded just by watching television of what happened here not very long ago between one Navajo young woman who is no longer alive and another who has lost control of her life forever. And I see that the one who is living and must be living in a hell of her own devising is on trial right now and so I did ceremony for all of you here who knew them, who know them, who were here at the time or who are feeling the ripples of that emotional onslaught that occurred on this campus. So I offer you my condolences and I hope that you will do what’s proper to do with all broken hearts, that you just surf on the top of negative energy and use it to accomplish something, to dedicate yourself to doing something about anything. No one can do everything about everything. You can do something about something and you just have to make a pledge to yourself to start and to do it in the name of someone or someone’s. And it would be good to dedicate yourself to the memory of people who had so much promise unfulfilled and to do something about the eradication of jealousy and envy, which are probably our two most important substantive enemies in Indian Country. And not just in Indian Country, you see it all around. A rising star shows up on the political scene and is immediately the target of people who are so envious that they are beside themselves and they do lose their mind, these people who have, who are guided by that kind of energy. When Shakespeare had a character say that jealousy was the green-eyed monster of despair that was so apt, it was so important. I have never heard a better description of jealousy. It eats away at you and it does consume you and take over your life.

Tom mentioned Hank Adams, the very great Hank Adams. Vine Deloria once wrote an article about Hank calling him ‘the most important Indian.’ And he was and he continues to be for many of us and for many reasons. Hank Adams is Assiniboine and Sioux and grew up in the Pacific Northwest and he thinks for people. He really is just a thinker. He wrote the '20 Points,' which you see on a lot of websites as an anonymous document or as the AIM [American Indian Movement] manifesto. Well, that was actually written by a person. Nothing ever just falls from the sky full written. That was written by Hank Adams. And one time I asked him, ‘Does it bother you that no one knows that you wrote that?’ And he said, ‘No, not at all.’ He said, ‘And that wasn’t the point was it?’ That’s right. The 20 Points give a good snapshot in time of where we were in the early 1970s, where Indian affairs kind of stood and what in some people’s minds could be done about it at the time. So Hank Adams is a very important person to research and read and if you’re looking at documents that are unattributed from the late ‘60s, early ‘70s and into the late ‘70s, you’re likely to find that Hank had a hand in writing those or some sort of, or maybe wrote all of those documents but you find a lot of them along the way. One time I was in a meeting of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians on the Pacific coast by Quinault Nation and it was very late and people were just talking as people do when it gets very late. And one man from the northwest shouted out, as Hank Adams was talking, ‘You have my international reputation.’ And he yelled it and everyone went, ‘What?’ And the man repeated it and said, ‘You, Hank Adams, have my international reputation.’ Well, what an odd thing that, you have to sort of put yourself in the mind of this man who was saying that to Hank Adams. What would make him in a social setting say something that was so bizarre but that to him was not at all bizarre? He had righteous indignation about Hank Adams and then he used the word stole, ‘You stole my international reputation.’ This is really strange. That’s how far jealousy can go. It makes you lose your sense of discernment; it makes you lose your sense of proportion of what’s socially acceptable in polite society.

Here Hank Adams just being kind of quiet, scholarly, intellectual Hank Adams scribing away for everyone and informing movements, writing what became the basis of the legal briefs that results in the Boldt Decision that upheld treaty fishing rights, doing that kind of stuff to benefit a whole lot of people and here someone else thought he had somehow stolen his international reputation. You never know what’s in the mind of a crazy person. Jealousy is craziness, envy is craziness and you never appreciate the limit of that kind of mind and the limitations of that kind of mind and the capabilities of that kind of mind. So be very cautious around crazy people. In our ceremonial ways, we’re always told not to go out in public when you are preparing for ceremony because you’re in a very vulnerable, receptive, weakened state, that you’re making yourself strong to be able to make offerings, to be able to withstand the rigors of whatever kind of ceremony you’re going through but you’re also in a very weakened position because you have no defenses, you’re not expecting any onslaughts, any assaults so you’re not supposed to go out in public, not supposed to go around lots of people, only people you know and trust, very small, doing things in a very private way while you’re in that state of making yourself receptive to visions or messages or just your own meditation [because] you never know when you go out in public where there’s someone lurking who is about to stand up and say, ‘You stole my international reputation.’

When you take on causes, it’s also done with some ceremoniousness and you have to be very careful because it means you are taking on enemies that you never had before and enemies you will never meet, enemies that will try to do things to you from the sidelines, through other people, through your job, through your school, through your nation, through your circle of friends so you have to really prepare yourself and understand how you could be vulnerable and if you are vulnerable to get rid of your vulnerabilities. If you can be taken out by booze, stop drinking. If you can be taken out by women or men or, what are your vulnerabilities, just eliminate the possibility of being used or undermined by people who will see any kind of weakened situation that you’re in. If you think that it doesn’t take courage to stand up to authorities or to something official or to something that’s wrong, then you don’t know what courage is. Vine Deloria was one of the most courageous people I have ever known and why? Because he would stand up and say, ‘This isn’t a good thing to do, let’s just cut it out shall we?’ And he would back it up.

He was the first person I thought of when, and the first person I asked to be a part of a lawsuit that I was contemplating bringing against the Washington football team, [because] I knew that we shared the same thoughts and we had worked on some projects together to get rid of Native references in sports in a variety of areas. In Louisville, Kentucky, for one, got rid of all of the elementary and middle school and high school Native references in their sports world, which took some doing and Vine was a great help with that. And it was done and when it was done, ‘Okay, that’s the end of that.’ Getting it done though we faced a lot of flak, mainly from the alums. And they would yell at us and say, ‘Don’t you have anything more important to do?’ Well, we’d look at each other and say, ‘We’re the ones doing the more important things. We’re the ones getting land back. We’re the ones doing religious freedom. We’re the ones doing these hugely important things -- getting health clinics, getting education programs. We are doing the more important things.’ And no one who has ever used that line, ‘Don’t you have more important things to think about or to do?’ has ever done anything for the Native people. I haven’t heard of anyone and it always makes me laugh whenever I see that.

Vine was the first person I asked to go on that journey of litigation that is now 16 years old. And if this were a child we would be preparing this child for college. Sixteen years. Now why has it lasted that long? Because the other side has employed a really old tactic against us, which is trying to starve us out. They’re trying to make us use whatever money we have by using all the money they have. And it’s not just the Washington football franchise that we’re up against, the National Football League, the NFL, has paid for every penny of litigation on their side, even though they’re not a named plaintiff. We didn’t sue the NFL; we only sued Pro Football, Inc., the owner of the Washington football team. So we have these huge monoliths that we are fighting and I miss Vine at my side on that fight but I can hear everything that he said so well and why he wanted to be involved in that fight was because, he said, ‘We owed it to our grandchildren, that this was a burden that we as the responsible adult population could not pass on to our children and grandchildren.’ So what’s ironic about that is that the courts are now saying that we waited too long. ‘Yes, you were the responsible adult population but you waited too long to file the suit.’ So they’re saying we’re too old in a world where we thought that’s what the elders were supposed to do was step up and lead the way. So now I recruited six young Native people to file our same lawsuit and they have done that. And our lawsuit remains alive, but it could be dismissed through the loophole of latches, passage of time, and it could be that they will never reach the merits of disparagement in our case. In the case of the 18 to 24 year olds, they don’t have a loophole of latches to hide behind and so they have to reach the merits of the case. So it’s going to be interesting to see how they address the merits of the case either in the case that’s captioned with my name or the case that’s captioned with Amanda Blackhorse’s name, Blackhorse et al. versus Pro Football, Inc. So it’s very interesting to have this kind of lawsuit.

In the meantime, we’ve been changing and getting changed these Native references with regularity since the '60s. The very first one was the University of Oklahoma and that fell by the wayside in 1970. That was the very first Native reference in American sports to be eliminated, was Little Red. Now why was Little Red, Little Red? Because in the beginning all of the schools didn’t have mascots, they only had colors. And Oklahoma was red so Big Red. It went from Red to Big Red and then Big Red had to have a Little Red. And once they had a Little Red it became a diminutive Indian, sort of Indian, mascot who used to dance around. And the Indian kids in Oklahoma like me would call Little Red the dancing idiot and Little Red was always a white guy in some sort of Indian outfit or supposed Indian outfit that became more and more authentic over time but the White guys could never dance. They still didn’t know how to dance like Indians. So then they had an Indian guy, their concession to all the clamber to get rid of Little Red was to make Little Red an Indian guy. And he was someone from my hometown who didn’t know how to dance either. And he, my cousin had a crush on him when we were little kids and he spat on her because he didn’t like Indian girls. And so of course we did not hold him in high regard in our town and he wasn’t Cheyenne or Arapahoe and we didn’t have a whole lot of tolerance for people who weren’t one of those two, in El Reno, Oklahoma. And when he became the University of Oklahoma’s Little Red, he went to my cousin, who was the brother of the girl who had had the crush on him and he knew Little Red, asked my cousin who was Junior Powwow champion, Junior Fancy Dance champion, which means something in Oklahoma and he asked him, ‘Would you sell me your outfit and would you teach me how to dance?’ So my cousin without saying a word took everything, his outfit onto the front lawn and set it on fire. Now that’s a Cheyenne response. That’s why we don’t have too much. It’s why we don’t have any museums and we had to build a national one. It was a heck of a thing to do and something that I’ll always be proud of my cousin for having done. The guy didn’t understand what that gesture meant. He knew it meant no. But he didn’t understand it and there was nothing he could do about it.

So he was Little Red and there was another Little Red and then there was a third Little Red who was also a Native person who was Navajo at the University of Oklahoma. And he accepted the job as Little Red but he really liked Indians. He liked the Indians in the Indian club and he wanted to understand what all this was about. This was his first year at OU and all of a sudden he’s the target of everyone. So what his friends told him, his Native friends was this, ‘Sit in the stands, just don’t go out for the big game.’ This was the homecoming game. ‘Don’t go out, just sit in the stands and see what happens when you don’t go down to dance.’ And so he did that and what he heard was, ‘where’s Little Red? We want Little Red,’ and everyone cheering and saying, ‘Yay, Little Red.’ And then the crowd turning and saying, ‘Eh, the Little Red, that dirty, ’ Calling him names and being angry with him because he wasn’t out there entertaining them. So then he really got it and he turned in his Little Red credentials or whatever you do and that started the University of Oklahoma in the direction of getting rid of the tradition of Little Red altogether because he had the courage to say, ‘Okay, let me try it. I’ll sit in the stands, I’ll sit this out, I want to hear what’s really being said.’ And so he got to understand what it was to be objectified and what it was to be the target of negative stereotyping. He had thought it was fine because it was a good stereotype but he came to understand that there’s no such thing as a good stereotype. There’s no such thing as a good stereotype. So even if people are saying, ‘Oh, we really like what you’re doing, we really like what you’re saying, you’re a good Indian,’ be very careful if someone’s calling you a 'good Indian' [because] where that comes from is from someone who chased our Cheyenne people all around the Plains after he had burned the south, Philip Sheridan. And what he would say is, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian.’ And he’s the one who sent Custer out to kill the Cheyennes on the Washita. And then Sheridan and Custer at the Washita were the reason that the Cheyennes went to Little Big Horn, where they did not lose.

I am enormously proud of my Cheyenne ancestors who were at Little Big Horn. I’m enormously proud of our Cheyenne people who resisted in whatever way they could resist the onslaught of 'civilization,' the efforts to change them into people they weren’t, their efforts to make treaties to provide for me. I’m here because someone could not kill Bull Bear. Chief Bull Bear was my great-great grandfather and he was the head of the Dog-Man Society at a time when the Dogmen Society families comprised more than half of the Cheyenne Nation. And the Cheyenne Nation at that time included, the Dogmen Society camps included Lakotas, included Kiowas, included Arapahoes, included some Comanches. It was a real United Nations. And the people were tri-lingual, quadra-lingual and they were called 'uncivilized' and 'savage.' And when they talked about the 'bad Indians' or the 'hostile Indians' or the 'fomenters of dissent,' that’s my family. I’m so happy for that. They created the civilization regulations that were in place, that were tools of religious oppression, cultural oppression, family breakup for over 50 years from the mid-1880s to the mid-1930s outlawing the Sun Dance and all other so-called ceremonies, outlawing the pagan and heathen activities of a so-called medicine man, prohibiting Indian parents from interfering with the education of their children. That meant as their youngest children were being taken away to boarding schools they couldn’t stop it. Outlawed dancing, outlawed roaming off the reservation with no apparent point in view, outlawed ponies [because] that was a mechanism for roaming off the reservation and stopped Native people from going to sacred places and then confiscated the places for the public domain. And that’s what you have a lot of court cases about today is those places that were taken in the name of 'civilization' that were stolen from the Native people where the Native people were prohibited from going to pray, to have ceremonies, to celebrate passages in people’s lives. Some of those places are now on federal lands and only the Native people can’t go there, only the Native people can’t control those places.

One of those places is Mount Graham and this university teamed up with the Vatican and with other entities, educational and religious, to desecrate it with the huge telescope project that exists now at the top of Mount Graham. And the people, the Apache people who opposed it and said, ‘That’s a holy place, that’s where we go for vision questing, that’s where the Gaan dancers live.’ They would say, ‘Oh, you mean the devil dancers?’ Now any place, any time you see a map or hear about a place that sounds sort of negative biblically, you know that that’s a place that was sacred or is sacred to Native people. Anything that the white people came into and called the devil-- a devil dancer, Devil’s Tower, Hell’s Canyon -- any of these places that have that kind of name -- Squaw Peak -- any place that was given a pejorative or a devilish kind of name, you know it’s a sacred place for Native people. So here at Mount Graham where the Gaan dancers live, where there are burials, where there are living objects of religious importance, where people have to go for emergence, not just one time in their life but many times in their life through any sort of passage, this university, the Forest Service, the Vatican all teamed up against the Apaches and called the religious practitioners crazy. I was in the chief of staff, in the [President Bill] Clinton Administration, I was visiting Leon Panetta who was chief of staff when one of the lobbyists for this coalition for the telescopes, which they originally called the Columbus Telescope -- which I thought was really rubbing it in -- they came, the lobbyist came in and said in front of me that ‘the Apache people were nuts, were crazy, were demented.’ And it reminded me so much of the way our Cheyenne people had been treated. And then on my father’s side how our people had been treated by the non-Indian people and by the good Christian people who moved everyone out of their homes in the Southeast and into Indian territory without asking permission and doing so against law, against any sort of morality.

These are huge things that are being done to Native people and they’re the same things that have been done to us throughout history. No other people have had their religions outlawed, no other people have had a final solution against them as we have had the Civilization Regulations, no other people have had these things done to us in the name of law and justice. And now when Native people are trying to do something about it and trying to get back into court, into legal processes to regain some of this territory, especially our sacred places, we’re being tossed out of court with regularity. A recent court decision was rendered against Navajos and Hopis and Apaches and Pueblos and Havasupais and Hualapais in the San Francisco Peaks case. The Ninth Circuit, after having decided on the side of the Indians in the San Francisco Peaks case, then were requested for an en banc decision for all of the Ninth Circuit judges, not just the three, to look at the case. And of course the minute that the Ninth Circuit accepted the petition for en banc consideration everyone knew that was the ballgame, that they would not have accepted had they not been about to overturn the three-judge unanimous decision. So in the en banc decision what are they saying about San Francisco Peaks? Well, they said it’s okay to use wastewater for snow, they didn’t permit the question about health, ‘Would you permit a baby to eat snow that has just this little one to 10 percent of sewage in it?’ They didn’t permit that. They permitted the religious testimony but not anew, they only permitted an argument and they decided that what they were dealing with was damaged, spiritual feelings. Now that’s sort of like saying, ‘You Indians are whiners, you just have hurt feelings and you’re trying to get us to stop using sewage water for snow at the top of your holy mountains.’

This is something that I encountered with the Forest Service in 1978 right after we had gotten the American Indian Religious Freedom Act passed and I went into the [President Jimmy] Carter administration and was made the person in charge of implementing the Religious Freedom Act and working with all the 50 agencies in the first year’s implementation and reporting to Congress. So the Hopi elders asked me to convene a meeting with the Forest Service and I did and they talked about San Francisco Peaks and how this recreation was causing turmoil in very important places in the peaks. And the Forest Service people just wanted to know, ‘What are we talking about, how much territory, how much land do you need?’ And the Hopis were saying, ‘It’s not like that. All of the San Francisco Peaks are sacred. It’s a landscape, a sacred landscape. It’s not to have skiing over here, religion over here. It’s not like that. You can’t pollute one area and expect the rest to remain unpolluted.’ So the Forest Service people were trying everything they could to get the Hopis to answer these quantification kinds of questions and in exasperation at one point a Forest Service man said, ‘Okay, you say your gods walk around the San Francisco Peaks. How big are their feet?’ And even for the Hopi elders who were speaking English, they knew they were talking a different language. How big are their feet? That was, there was no more meeting after that. That was the equivalent of my cousin having taken his outfit to the front lawn and set it on fire just because he couldn’t bear contemplating the request. The Forest Service people did not understand why that ended the meeting. They just didn’t get it. The Hopi elders felt that there was nothing more to discuss and that they had made their point and that they certainly weren’t in a position to say how big their god’s feet were or even if they had feet. It was just another way of looking at the world.

So that’s the kind of thing that’s going on right now. At Bear Butte, a holy mountain to the Cheyenne people, there are all sorts of things that are happening there that are disturbing the people’s vision questing, disturbing the people’s meditation, their prayer, everything that’s done there by all the 60-plus nations who go there, whose traditional people go there, has to be done in quiet. There’s nothing that can be done with loudness. It’s just right next door where the town of Sturgis has the motorcycle roundup and where the people, at one point we almost had to make a treaty with them [because] they were driving up Bear Butte and throwing bottles -- beer bottles, pop bottles -- and hitting our people who were in meditation, who were in prayer, who weren’t allowed to do anything or even move from dawn ‘til dusk. And they made a game of trying to disturb them and then made a game of them just being targets. So we finally stopped that sort of thing but the roundup has gotten louder and louder and louder and now they have lots of music events. One of the candidates for president, John McCain -- who knows better -- went to Sturgis for this year’s roundup and said, '250,000 motorcycles, that’s the sound of freedom.’ And then he said, ‘Drill here, right here, drill here.’ Here is Bear Butte, this holy mountain to so many Native people. It’s acknowledged as a holy mountain by the federal government, by the state government of South Dakota, some of our people own part of Bear Butte. We’ve been trying to buy it back when it’s been under threat of development. Our Cheyenne/Arapahoe people, our nations own 120 acres. Lower Brule Tribe owns about that and others are contemplating buying up some of the buffer zone. And it was shocking to see a sitting senator go to the base of our holy mountain that is so huge in our history and to talk about, to encourage this roar of 'freedom' and to invite people to drill; ‘drill here, drill here.’ And he wasn’t pointing to any other place. He wasn’t saying generally or offshore, he was saying, ‘Here, here.’

In the southeast, because so many of our peoples have been removed from our sacred places, they are being plowed under, dug up -- burial grounds, worship areas, mounds, all sorts of places that you would think people would have respect for, just a little respect -- and those are being destroyed by the thousands each year, by the thousands. So this is something that is a crisis in Indian Country and it should be a crisis for America and is not yet. I think it’s because not enough people understand what happened and that there are too many people who understand but simply don’t care and who are fine with it, who are fine with it and would like to see an end to the Indians forever. Something we faced before and something we faced in the Civilization Regulation period, but now I think a lot of politicians rightly perceive that once we lose our language, once we lose our culture, once we lose our religion, if those things are no longer in existence then we are no longer Native people. Then who are we? And we will cease to exist. So I think that we are in for it, I think we’re in for it and that that’s the era we’re in right now.

One of the things that Vine did that was so very important was to work his heart out for sacred places protections. And he went to a lot of these places I’ve been talking about and really helped us out, tried to do what he said he would do when I met him in 1965 to think about it, to think how we could do it. Well, we thought a lot of, we figured a lot of stuff out. We figured out the repatriation laws, we figured out the whole line of cultural property rights laws and I’m very happy with what we have done. The only thing that we were not able to achieve was full legal protections for sacred places so we’ve had to cobble together protections made of other laws, cobble together protections made of people in corporate America and people in government at all levels who have a conscience and who have just done things irrespective of laws that say you can or cannot do this certain thing. Because in the end everything comes down to people -- it comes down to you and you and you and me -- to get something done. And here’s the good news about it, it doesn’t take many people to get something done. It doesn’t take many people at all. Any time we have a campaign on an important Indian law and we have five Native people on Capitol Hill, you’ll hear from all over Capitol Hill, ‘Indians are everywhere in town.’ So it doesn’t take long, it doesn’t take many people, but it just takes committed people and people who look around and say, ‘I can do something over here. I can help out over here. People need a helping hand here. People need my thinking about this. I need to be a part of the conversation.’ Maybe you don’t have 10 years of your life but maybe you have 10 minutes or you have 10 months. Any kind of time you can give to the Indian public service, is all to the good. Whether you’re Native, whether you’re not Native, but especially if you’re a Native person, you should pony up and say, ‘This is what I have to do to serve Native America.’

I want to open this up for questions but I also want to read a poem that I wrote for Vine Deloria’s celebration of life. And it was right after, it was a public event. I’d been asked to speak at it and I knew we were going to say our final farewells to him in a small setting and then go into this larger setting. So I was trying to figure out what I should say and I was at my computer typing in the morning and nothing was coming out right. And then I could hear Vine’s voice in my head saying, ‘Just write a poem for Christ’s sake.’ So I did and this was the easiest poem I ever wrote and the hardest one I ever read.

This is called 'Sing Your Song for Vine':

Vine was our sacred mountain and raging river and gentle rain. Healing sage after Sun Dance sacrifice. Cool, calm waters after a hard day’s work. He was that wicked funny thought at the least appropriate time, whip smart and coyote clever tossing banana peels beneath the feet of the pompous. He was our Atticus Finch who defended us to the death. He was our teasing cousin who never let us get away with pretention, our kind grandpa who wanted us to love each other, our warrior leader who lifted us up for counting coup, our stern teacher who made us sit up straight, our good-time uncle who took us to old timey movies, our kid brother who always wanted to play another game. He filled our horizons and now we see him as a mirage, but sing your song for Vine and call him to your side, a Yanktonai song for the longest journey, an honor song of praise and thanksgiving, a traveling son by the Sons of the Pioneers. Then he will be there as a shadow of an eagle overhead as the glint of silver medicine flying from the corner of your eye, as a distant sound that commands your attention, as a sudden realization you might think of as an original thought, as the turning aspen leaves in the peace and glory of the dying moment, as a gentle voice telling you things will be better when you know they never will be, as maybe just a sigh, ah, hello my dear friend, I have a song for you.

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Dr. Suzan Shown Harjo: The View From Lincoln's Head: Notes of a Native American Journey

Poet, writer, lecturer, curator and policy advocate Dr. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) commemorates the legacy of scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. by recalling stories of his service to Native communities and by reading a series of poems that he enjoyed.


This is an excerpt of a longer educational DVD produced to answer frequently asked questions about American Indian tribal governments and the roots of tribal sovereignty. Among other things, it discusses the U.S. Constitution's explicit acknowledgement of tribal sovereignty and Native peoples as…