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The American Indian Religious Freedom Act -- Looking Back and Looking Forward

From: Wicazo Sa Review
Volume 19, Number 2, Fall 2004
pp. 143-151 | 10.1353/wic.2004.0020

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Wicazo Sa Review 19.2 (2004) 143-151

The American Indian Religious Freedom Act—Looking Back and Looking Forward

Suzan Shown Harjo

I'm surprised that my work on religious freedom is so much in print because, for the most part, I've been a ghostwriter. I've written under other people's names. It's not important to cite what was really written by me. The important thing is that they think it. They said it. They signed a law.

I had some wonderful relatives—grandparents and parents and uncles and aunts—who always told me I was a writer. And when I went to some medicine bundle renewal ceremonies at Bear Butte, South Dakota, in June 1967, I stayed for some meetings afterward because a couple of my uncles said, "Stay for the meeting afterward." I was the youngest person there, except for my daughter who was two years old, and I was the only writer. People kept looking at me and saying, "Write that up." And they didn't mean take a note of the meeting. They meant do something about this. "Write that up." Even though I was a reporter and a producer in radio and lived in New York City at the time, I knew that I was going to have to get together with other people who knew what they were doing to be able to "write that up."

The meetings after those ceremonies included some very important and great people: our Cheyenne arrow keeper, many of our headsmen, our society people, many Lakota people, and people from different nations. And I think that was the seminal meeting, sort of the coalition meeting of the group that went forward on several issues: sacred places protection and repatriation—before we used that word. All we knew was that dead people were being put on display and maltreated, and experiments were being done on them in museums, and we wanted that to stop, we wanted to bury them. We didn't have something to call that wish for a long time. Finally, we hit on "repatriation."

So, my résumé, in a way, begins in 1967, even though I had a whole career in radio and theater before then and had been a published poet since I was twelve years old. My real work began at that time, when my elders said, "Write that up." That helped me in my move toward Washington, which was a whole other planet. I never thought I would be in Washington, but then I never thought I would be in New York. I'm from El Reno, Oklahoma. And if you know anything about Oklahoma, you know that El Reno is not one of the larger cities. I grew up on the east side of Oklahoma, in a town—well, you know where Tulsa is, not there; Okmulgee, not there; Beggs, not there; but outside Beggs, on Muscogee land. My dad is Muscogee, Hodulgee Muscogee, and my mom is Cheyenne, a daughter of the prophecy and instruction to "flee the coming of the White Destruction and follow the setting sun."

A long time back in history, the Tsistsistas People, the Human Beings, lived in the Beautiful Land, up around Nova Scotia, and we were told to follow the setting sun and "flee the coming of the White Destruction." Some people said that might have been a big snowstorm. All I know is that by 1492 we were living around the Great Lakes area, and we had another prophecy to "flee the coming of the White Destruction"—and an absolute instruction and imperative to "follow the setting sun"—and that's when we went out to the Plains. So, it wasn't our idea to leave the Beautiful Land.

It wasn't the Muscogee people's idea to leave the beautiful country, in what is now the southeastern United States, where the Muscogee Confederacy was great and had given comfort and solace to so many people. The Confederacy, for instance, took in Scots stonemasons living on the American frontier—their clan structure was destroyed and all clan leaders killed by the English in the 1745 Battle of Culloden...