Suzan Shown Harjo’s accomplishments as a Native American activist have spanned more than five decades.
The public policy leader, writer and curator is known for penning major legislation, including the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and assisting with many more.
Harjo also led the first lawsuit against the Washington Redskins trademark, founded the Morning Star Institute for Native Issues and served as a liaison for Indian affairs in President Jimmy Carter’s administration. In 2014, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But before she made her mark on Washington, Harjo was the co-host of one of the first – if not the first – radio shows in the country focused on Native issues. The New York-based, biweekly show, “Seeing Red,” ran from 1968-1975.
Nearly 90 seven-inch, reel-to-reel tapes of the show – at least it’s believed the tapes are of “Seeing Red,” although they can’t be heard in their current condition – were part of the life archives that Harjo donated to the Institute of American Indian Arts two years ago. They’ll eventually be placed in a special oven for restoration before they can be digitized.
Many of the tapes are labeled with the names of major activists, including Vine Deloria, an author, and Dennis Banks and Clyde Bellecourt, who helped start the American Indian Movement (AIM), a Native advocacy organization.
One tape is labeled with the name and a setlist of Comanche guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, who in addition to his own albums was featured on records by Jackson Browne, Taj Mahal, Rod Stewart, native activist/poet John Trudell and many other stars. Some tapes are believed to contain poetry readings.
Not much is known about the show today, said IAIA archivist Ryan Flahive, on the internet or from scholars of radio history. He said the current leadership at the Pacifica Foundation, the nonprofit company that owned WBAI – the nonprofit radio station that aired Harjo’s show – aren’t familiar with it, either.
But Flahive is hoping to raise the show’s profile anew with an IAIA project that received grant funding this month. With nearly $20,000 from the D.C.-based Council on Library and Information Resources, as part of the council’s Recordings at Risk program, IAIA will preserve and digitize the Harjo tapes, and make the audio available online.
“I think one of the biggest problems with the way we teach history of Native peoples in our schools is that we forget that they’re still here,” Flahive said. “And we forget they have a very recent history,” not just moments like Wounded Knee in 1893. “They’re still here,” he said.
“This is kind of describing their current reality,” Flahive said of “Seeing Red.” “What these tapes do is lead us up to the Self-Determination Act of 1975, it leads us up to AIM in 1974 and leads us up to all of those other acts that Suzan Harjo started with,” including congressional measures protecting Native graves, religious freedom and sacred places.
Flahive said none of that would have happened without the people Harjo interviewed “setting a stage, and without Suzan Harjo giving them a voice.”
‘Everyone was trying to assert who they were’
In a recent phone interview with the Journal, Harjo, now 73, called the plans to preserve her radio shows “wonderful.”
Recalling how “Seeing Red” got started, Harjo said she listened to WBAI while staying home with her newborn child in New York. She and Flahive both described WBAI as a center for alternative, liberal viewpoints that weren’t represented in mainstream media. Harjo called the station “free speech radio.” “I loved what I heard and loved what I was learning from everyone on the air,” Harjo recalled. But, she added, “once in a while there was something on Native people, and it was always wrong.”
She said she and her late husband, Frank Harjo, co-produced “Seeing Red” on a volunteer basis.
Many of the people she remembers having on the show were good friends of the Harjos – Suzan described the activist/artist Native community at the time as having just “one degree of separation.”
AIM co-founder Dennis Banks, whose name is on the label for a tape in the collection now at IAIA, was one of the show’s go-to commentators because he was a “very effective educator and a quick thinker,” Harjo said.
Among musicians, she recalls artists like guitarist Davis, as well as jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper, playing on the show. And WBAI hosted the first reading of Pulitzer Prize-winning Native author N. Scott Momaday’s 1969 book “The Way to Rainy Mountain.” The show also covered historical events like the Bureau of Indian Affairs building takeover of 1972, as well as a live program with activists who had just returned from the Wounded Knee Occupation of 1973.
Overall, Hardo said, the show aimed to bust stereotypes and shed light on Native-specific civil rights issues in a way that wasn’t “monolithic.” Hot topics relating to religious freedom, saving Native languages, treaty rights, the treatment of Native students in boarding schools and police brutality against indigenous people were all addressed.
She said the content was aimed at both Native and non-Native people. “We didn’t want it to be something that would be laughed at by our own people – you never want to embarrass yourself – we didn’t want it to be so simplistic that it would be that result, or so in the weeds that people would just get lost,” she said.
In that era, Harjo said, “Everyone was trying to assert who they were. African Americans were, and women were, and the gay people were. Anywhere you looked in American society, people were trying to explain themselves to other people and say this is who we are, this is what we mean to be, this is what we’re trying to be and this is what’s preventing us from that. We were a part of that overall movement.”
‘Anxious’ to hear the tapes
What’s on the collection of tapes at IAIA is a mystery. Flahive hasn’t been able to listen to them. He doesn’t know if they contain what their labels say, or if they’ve been taped over, or even if they are really recordings of “Seeing Red.”
Many of the tapes are believed to suffer from sticky-shed syndrome, a humidity-caused condition that affects magnetic media. Because the tapes have been sitting in boxes in a Harjo’s D.C. brownstone home since 1972 without a HVAC system, a white residue has caused the reels to stick together and makes them impossible to play. Most of the $20,000 will go toward sending the collection to the audio preservation department at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusets.
“They will put these in a scientific oven to a very specific, consistent temperature that will then release that residue so they can unwind them, rewind them and reformat them,” Flahive explained.
He expects that process to be completed by January. IAIA will then be given digital copies on hard drives with embedded metadata, along with reboxed, master preservation copies. The school also plans to give copies to Pacifica, which technically owns the content.
“I’m anxious and excited to get them back and to listen,” said Flahive. “I just want to know what’s on it.”
Flahive envisions making a book of transcriptions, as well as designing curricula for students as young as elementary school using the “Seeing Red” content. For scholars interested in researching history of AIM, as well as the history of radio, he thinks this could be an important collection.
‘The 20-year rule’
Harjo explained what she calls the 20-year rule, under which the American public “discovers” Native people and issues about every two decades. She said that was happening in the ’70s when her show was airing, helped along by the release of Dee Brown’s 1970 book, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” in the early ’90s around the time the movie “Dances with Wolves” came out, and most recently in the mid-2010s with the pipeline protests at Standing Rock.
The radio tapes, Harjo said, will show people how certain issues have or have not changed in the past 50 years. She added that a lot can be gleaned from hearing the way activist leaders spoke decades ago. Listeners should be able to decipher elements of her interview subjects’ personalities, how passionate they were about the cause, and how that manifests itself through their words.
“You hear a lot when you’re just dealing with the voice,” she said. “Facts mean more, you absorb more things, that’s just the difference of the medium. I think people have a lot to learn from that.”