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Native American gives lecture

Liz Harter | Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Suzan Shown Harjo, a columnist for Indian Country Today and President and CEO of The Morning Star Institute, spoke to a crowd of 35 at Saint Mary’s Tuesday about the removal of Native American culture and language from the modern United States.

The fourth lecture in the first-year series themed “Who Counts in the United States?,” Harjo’s talk, entitled “Diversifying Diversity: Beyond One of These, One of Those…,” focused on her own experiences of combating the loss of culture. She drew on her extensive work as a prominent Native American poet, author, spokesperson, curator and policy advisor.

The first-year theme, chosen every spring by a group of professors and the Center for Academic Innovation, is meant to create a sense of intellectual community, especially among first-year students.

Harjo cited the familiar nursery rhyme of “ten little, nine little, eight little Indians…” and said it proves citizens’ understanding of how Native Americans count in the U.S. -“backwards.”

The nursery rhyme shows Native Americans have a history of being diminished in the American psyche, of having lands diminished and of being counted out, Harjo said.

She said the nursery rhyme is taught to small children and “means that something bad is coming, it means that everything is disappearing.”

She said children need to be taught “counting up” to show that Native Americans are flourishing.

Harjo said Native American cultures started to diminish when Europeans began settling further west. The whites, she said, considered the rituals and religions of the Native Americans to be the hellish work of the devil. They therefore renamed conquered sacred locations of the Native Americans, calling the places names like Hell’s Canyon and Devil’s Tower, Harjo said.

The Europeans imposed laws upon the Native Americans such as outlawing traditional religions and roaming off the reservations they had been forced onto without a purpose, she said.

Harjo cited the recent debates over NCAA Universities having to change Native American-themed mascots as one of the ways that white people dominated, colonized and dehumanized Native Americans.

But Harjo said not all laws regarding Native Americans are oppressive. The Federal Indian Boarding Schools allowed Native Americans to meet with teenagers from other tribes. Harjo’s own parents were members of different tribes – her father is Muskogee and her mother is Cheyenne.

The American Indian Boarding Schools were intended to teach people to be open and accepting of other cultures.

The boarding schools were a failed attempt by the federal government to breed out the Native Americans in three generations, Harjo said. The schools tried to introduce Native Americans into the white culture so they would marry white people, but instead they married each other, she said. At these schools, Native Americans often banded together after being beaten for speaking in their native languages, bringing them closer together.

Harjo has worked with the federal government in proactive Native American efforts. She has recovered more than one million acres of sacred land for different tribes and was instrumental in protecting Native American culture and arts by working closely with the Smithsonian to open the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

She said the museum focuses on the religious aspects of different tribes and that visitors do not need to know everything about Native Americans to enjoy the exhibits.

Counting, Harjo said, “begins with respect and with a celebration of our differences.”