It began with dreams and nightmares.

Nightmares of ancestors and Medicine Beings trapped on museum walls. Sacred items stolen from shrines and burial sites in the light of day when the sun bore witness. Nightmares entered the minds of Native people, descendants who lived through decades of injustice, assimilation and subjugation.

“Horrors of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre disturbed the sleep of Cheyenne and Arapaho people. The 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre was revisited on Lakota people,” Suzan Shown Harjo writes in the 2011 book “Past, Present, and Future: Challenges of the National Museum of the American Indian.”

“Imprisoned ancestors appeared in dreams, asking the dreamers to help them. Atrocities invaded the minds and sleep of strong, clear-thinking people. In general American society, they would have been called crazy.”

Suzan Shown Harjo, life and legacy

The roots of Suzan’s advocacy are tied to the late-1960s, when she co-produced “Seeing Red,” the first Indigenous radio news show. It was based in New York City and aired from 1968-1975. She later served as news director for the American Indian Press Association.

In the late 1970s, Suzan served in former President Jimmy Carter’s administration, focusing on Indigenous rights and legislation. In 1984, she founded the Morning Star Institute to advocate for the cultural rights and traditions of Native Americans.

Suzan played a pivotal role in Pro-Football Inc. v. Harjo and the subsequent Blackhorse v. Pro-Football Inc. cases, where she and others opposed the use of racist slurs and stereotypes in the Washington D.C. NFL football team name.

In 1992, Suzan was the first Native American woman to receive the Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College. In 2004, she became the first person awarded back-to-back fellowships as a School of Advanced Research and Poetry Fellow.

Four years later, she was honored in Tucson as the first speaker in the Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholar Series at the University of Arizona.

The Institute of American Indian Arts awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2011, making her the first Indigenous woman to receive the accolade.

For her decades of advocacy and scholarship, she’s received numerous honors, including in 2014 when President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United State’s highest civilian honor.

She named the chapter: “It Began with a Vision in a Sacred Place.”

Suzan’s contribution is among several from Indigenous leaders who attended a 2007 symposium at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian to reflect on the history and planning for the future of the museum, as well as honor the contributions of Founding Director W. Richard West, Jr., who was succeeded by Kevin Gover of the Pawnee Nation.

Four years later, the book expanded on the panel discussions. Gover wrote an introductory essay that set the tone for a critical analysis of the museum and U.S. policies and laws as they affect Native Americans.

“The longheld idea that the Americas were a largely unpeopled wilderness before European contact has been upended, and this museum has contributed to the broader understanding of our ancestors as philosophers, physicians, inventors, scientists, engineers, and great thinkers,” Gover wrote. “This museum’s objective has always been to build a place that would enable the world to explore the past, present, and future through the perspective of Native peoples. We keep moving forward to realize that vision.”

Suzan’s symposium discussion was elevated into a full presentation for the book.

Suzan is Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, born in Oklahoma. She is a renowned activist, writer, curator and poet who contributed to the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989 and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990

Today, those laws help protect and preserve Native American cultures and allow for the proper return of Indigenous human remains and funerary objects to their respective tribal nations.

In a March interview with Arizona Luminaria, Suzan talked about the beginnings of repatriation and the 22-year legislative and advocacy journey of Native American repatriation.

She shared memories and milestones of the movement — a collective of Native American wins and losses — along the way. 

In June 1967, at a place deemed sacred by Indigenous peoples called Bear Butte in South Dakota, a gathering of Cheyenne, Lakota and other tribal nations met to try and understand why they experienced these dreams and nightmares. To find solutions to the systemic oppression and to reclaim what was stolen.

Suzan was among the many Indigenous people involved in these historic discussions. Along the way, through this interview of Suzan speaking about the connectedness of past, present and future, read excerpts of her poem “Child of Time.” (This interview was edited only for clarity and length.)

she knew of my early mourning visit
to the museum of indian dead
where i had stared at her small torn gown
of leather and beads, all stained with red

Beginnings of building repatriation laws

It took us a long time to get there. None of us who were at that ’67 meeting lived in Washington. I was close, I lived in NYC, but Washington’s a whole other planet.

We knew what we knew.

We knew our treaties; we knew our traditional knowledge; we knew healing medicine; we knew our sacred places and ceremonies; but we didn’t know the customs and rituals, the archaeology and anthropology and genealogy of Washington D.C.

A whole lot of us know that now, but we didn’t at that time, so it took us a while to understand what we needed, what was achievable, what was impossible. And what were our absolutes, our parameters.

We were building a door.

What you do with legislation, is you’re building a door of access to certain things under the law. Every time we’d meet with another nation, another tribe, another group of elders, that would reshape the door a little bit and it would widen the door and make it oddly configured.

So (in the end) you’d have a door that doesn’t even resemble a door because it’s new, and you want to make sure that everyone that you know of can make their way through it, so you want to have as few restrictions as possible.

In 1984, I asked the new secretary of the Smithsonian (Robert Adams) to meet with us, thinking he would say no, as his predecessor had done, who wouldn’t meet with any Native people.

He said yes, he would be happy to. I told him we wanted to talk about the care and treatment of the Smithsonian-wide collection, whether or not to display the collection, and potential returns.

That was in my capacity as the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, at the same time I was a trustee of the Museum of the American Indian, which had about a million objects in its collection and it was slowly deteriorating — some things quickly deteriorating.

The Smithsonian had been our target. We had a “king of the hill” strategy and the Smithsonian was right there because it was setting the standard for everyone.

Kevin Gover, former Director of the Museum of the American Indian and Suzan Shown Harjo, guest curator of the Nation to Nation exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, with their exhibit catalog in 2014. Credit: U.S. National Archives

It took us from ’67 to ’89 to get the (National Museum of the American Indian) act and the agreement with the Smithsonian — 22 years. It took us 11 months to nationalize the repatriation agreement and rewrite it to make it bigger and more appropriate for more entities that then got signed into law.

blood should mean something more than this
blood flows and lives and gives again

‘Cultural patrimony’ and the language of Native graves protection and repatriation laws

Arizona wanted to slow us down, (because) we’re making too much progress. So, in 1988, they had an idea to have a national dialogue at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

They convinced Mo Udall, who was the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee chairman, and convinced John McCain, the senator from Arizona, to outreach to Native peoples and see if we would agree to have these meetings. We say sure, we’ll meet with anyone and we’ll be happy to try to convince anyone of the importance of this.

We did meet and we did get some agreement on the language, but interestingly enough, the head of the Field Museum (of Natural History), the head of the trustees, totally agreed with me after I laid out that we should be using the term ‘human remains.’

It’s respectful, and that we should be seeking a way to stop disrespecting each other and one way you do it is through language. So that’s how I came up with “funerary objects” as well, because the burial and burial process doesn’t quite cover everything because not everyone was buried.

You’re talking about people put away in scaffolds and caves and remains that were placed in cremation pots for example. We had to have a term for that but the whole pot where there are just ashes of the human person who was in the pot, that whole pot becomes the stand-in for the person.

In the (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), that’s a surrogate. And funerary objects and sacred objects rather than grave goods, which was the scientific term that everyone was using, which included all of the repositories. You can tell the old guard loved that term: “grave goods.”

We had to be that basic and that fundamental: no grave goods — funerary objects, sacred objects and cultural patrimony. We have specific reasons for that because the repositories would say: ‘Oh, we have permission to study that, we have permission to have these people and things in our collection. We have papers, we bought them.’ 

We would make the point: That’s not good title, you don’t have a title to them. Unless you have something with the signature of the deceased saying you can study the heck out of me, then you don’t have permission.

It doesn’t matter that a grave robber fenced people and things somewhere and they ended up at your museum, and you have a paper trail of payments being made, that’s not good title, that’s not any title, that’s just money changing hands and the property is bad, so the title is bad — because it’s fruit of the rotten tree.

That was one big, big issue. We devised ‘cultural patrimony,’ which was a term that we had been using generally for a while as a catch-all phrase. In (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), it has a particular meaning to address this title thing, it was that cultural property are important things for the people as a whole that cannot be alienated by any one person.

It was this catch–all that you didn’t have to make the case that it was a sacred object, although it might be, or that it was a surrogate or human remain or a funerary object or not connected with that kind of history in any way, although it could be.

It could be that you acquired a ledger book of the Cheyenne Dog Men society that was taken from a body of a dead Cheyenne artist who did it. That’s the history of a particular society of a particular Native nation — that’s what we mean.

Wampum belts, not necessarily sacred but historic and again, they can’t be given over by just one person if they’re the property of the group as a whole, so they can’t be alienated by one person or any one part of the group.

You can even make the argument that they can’t be alienated at all, because you would be disenfranchising those things from the successive generations in that group.

but here, only dead rust patterns surrounding
a bullet hole where her belly had been

Fears from the institutions

A lot of the holding repositories in Arizona were among our greatest opponents to achieving repatriation law and then to implementing it properly and they hold thousands and thousands and thousands of remains and have disassociated the remains from the precious things they were buried with. Then they blame the Native people for not being able to identify them, (because) well, they don’t have enough information.

So the holding repository is screaming bloody murder: ‘We can’t inventory everything; We don’t know what we have and it would just cost millions and millions of dollars.’

Well, if you don’t know what you have, what are you protecting? Are you just guarding a bunch of bones? A bunch of boxes? If you can’t tell what it is, what use are you as a protector of remains? They’re not doing you or anyone any good.

YouTube video

On the title issue, with the war gods, one set of lawyers with the Native American Rights Fund had prepared a draft complaint for the Denver Art Museum, who had a war god that they wouldn’t give up.

They (Native American Rights Fund) said, ‘We’re going to file this but we wanted you to look at this and see if there’s any way you could win if we make a case that you have no title to these war gods.’

That caused a kind of coalition to be built amongst the, what we called the 10 majors. You’re talking about the big metropolitan museums: American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian; the Field (Museum) in Chicago; the UC system in California; plus all the federal agencies and historical societies in every state.

We wanted to make sure that we were able to create the possibility for repatriations.

Their coalition was building to make sure we wouldn’t get the law.

What they decided — through a phone call that we got a transcript of oddly enough — was that: ‘No museum was safe on the title issue, so if anyone threatens a title issue, give them what they want, don’t take it to court or try to work something out because we’re going to lose on that issue.’

to most it was merely a dress on display
placed next to the ancient Navajo loom
lighted and indexed for all the curious
patrons of this bone-chilling public tomb

A grand national solution with room for tribal differences

Many different nations and tribes had different priorities. The door to the law couldn’t just be about human remains because others like the Zuni, at that point, did not want to repatriate human remains. They said their priorities are the war gods and other sacred objects and had misgivings about repatriating people.

It didn’t mean: ‘OK, you’re out of the club,’ or, ‘Get yourself a new lobbyist then.’ It didn’t place a priority scale on repatriatable categories that under different people, under different times, would have different approaches and ways of doing things.

Those of us who were writing the laws knew more than anyone else about the subject at that point, but we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We didn’t know of the people who were going to do the repatriating itself, so you want to create a framework where they can meet on respectful grounds.

The exact way you do a repatriation is something that should be part of the negotiation amongst the people because it comes down to personal history with their holding repositories, where they’re located, and the customs, traditions and religious tenets of the people who are doing the repatriating.

People came up with really interesting and important individual ways of resolving those conflicts.

Our goal was to reduce conflict and create a respectful framework, even if we had to legislate it — but it was still created. Then let everything else be decided by the people involved because they’re the ones who are going to have to live with each other. They can work out all sorts of arrangements.

The Smithsonian has started making ethical returns, they just did that with some masks that were from Africa and are now returned to the people that they were taken from when they have been in the collection of the Smithsonian for a very long time. They’re now back with the people because it was the right thing to do.

When it happens like that, the people might want to continue a relationship because you want to have the expertise, the knowledge, and the technology of these institutions. You want to have their scholars and their interviews, their own essays and their own journal articles that will be put out by the museum.

But even with the years and years of experience within these museums, they can know almost nothing without the Native people [coming in and] saying: ‘You know what you’ve been calling a tool? That’s a drumstick, if you turn it right side up.’ Those kinds of things are only worked out people to people, and institutions and groups, and nation to nation. It’s not done by a federal law.

One of our earliest meetings was with people up in Oregon at Warm Springs. They talked with us about having dealt with the Army Corps of Engineers across the river who were exhuming bodies. Their chiefs and clan mothers went over there to talk with them and they said: ‘We would like to do ceremony for them and rebury them.’ 

‘No,’ the Army Corps said.

‘Well, why not?’

‘They’re different people, they’re not your people.’

‘Why do you think that?’

‘Well, you’re on that side of the river and these [remains] are on this side of the river.’

‘You don’t think we knew them? Or married them? If they don’t exist anymore, all the more reason for us to do that for them.’

They got a firm no and a ‘get lost.’

this dress of dried blood does not belong here
it should be saged and secretly burned

The return home

I made it my own rule that I would not be part of the repatriations themselves. That’s just me and what I knew I had to do to protect myself as a human being. I admire the people who do that and it’s awesome work, in the true meaning of the word ‘awesome.’ 

It takes a lot of stamina and just a real good heart to do that kind of work. In a way, what we want is the right to have funerals, because some of our people had not been buried ever.

This history is really awful. It created a lot of people with PTSD after doing this kind of work either on the policy end or on the repatriation end.

But what’s energizing and uplifting is when a sacred object is brought back, as a ceremony is done around that object. The ceremony was done continuously, only they were missing the centerpiece or an important part: a mask, a shield — whatever the important object might be. 

People then become amazed: ‘No wonder we do this or say that’ or ‘I had no idea we used those colors’ or ‘Have you ever seen that design?’

It’s as if they never left – it’s really a homecoming. 

It’s putting pieces of people’s history and lives back into place.

and now, with the dawn, her voice on the wind
“I’ll walk this way ‘til my spirit’s returned.”


Editor: Dianna M. Náñez Copy Editor: Irene McKisson

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Chad Bradley is a Diné journalist from northwestern New Mexico in their senior year and final semester at ASU’s Cronkite School. Bradley focuses their reporting on Indigenous communities and tribal...