Suzan Shown Harjo’s Last Rites for Indian Dead Short Summary

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            Suzan Shown Harjo’s article, Last Rites for Indian Dead, is both a critique and an appeal at the same time, meant to raise awareness to the abusive use of the Indians’ remains as collectibles which are displayed in museums or persevered by private collectors. Suzan Shown Harjo endeavors to show that the ongoing archeological exploitation of her ancestors’ bones is an abuse that must cease and that the remains should be reburied in order to allow for the spiritual healing of the American Indian culture. Harjo’s argumentation is solid, offering both statistical evidence and moral insight into the desecration of the Native American burial sites. As it shall be seen, the essay is a rhetorical feat that draws attention to the archeological and commercial abuse of a people and their culture.

            Suzan Shown Harjo is a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and one of the best known Native American activists in America. She has battled against misuse and misrepresentation of the American Indian people and their culture throughout her life. She was also executive director if the National Congress of American Indians. As such, she has spoken and acted in the name of her people. Harjo’s background recommends her as both an expert in legislation and culture and as a Native American closely connected with the traditions of her own people.

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            Harjo uses a mixture of evidence in order to backup her arguments. She cites historical documents and facts and exhibits statistics from the present about the Smithsonian museum. First of all, Harjo brings as evidence the lack of definite laws that would protect the burial rights of the Native Americans. By contrast, the author highlights the fact that there are laws that protect the rest of the Americans from abuse of this kind. Because of the lack of adequate and protective laws, the American Indians seem to be the “archeological property of the United States” (Harjo 44). Furthermore, Harjo reverts to historical facts about the about the “Indian Crania Study” that took place after the massacre at Sand Creek. Moreover, she cites the account of an officer who participated in this study only to offer an entirely unscientific conclusion about the differences between the skulls of the white people and those of the Indians. Harjo also points to the great number of remains displayed at the Smithsonian along with animal skeletons: over nineteen thousand. Moreover, she quotes expert opinion on the scientific claim made with regards to the study of the remains for medical purposes that would benefit the living Indian population. The medical opinion she quotes indicates that there is no obvious benefit to be derived from this research.

Harjo points out that the scientific claim that is used in order to justify desecration is unsubstantial since the number of the remains that are used for various purposes is almost greater than the number of the actual living Native Americans. Harjo brings proof in order to support the existence of obvious commercial profit coming from this abuse. The writer cites a recent case which occurred in Kentucky where hundreds of Indian graves where dug and plundered for both bones and artifacts, such as bead necklaces. The evidence that Harjo brings is both specific and adequate for her argument. She proves her point by citing the most poignant instances of abuse, going back to the past and exploring the present state of affairs as well. The most important points that Harjo makes are that the Native Americans have not only been massacred and dispossessed, but also turned into a property by the commerce and archeological exploitation of the remains of the dead. For a rather brief article, Harjo’s writing is very convincing and pertinent.

Harjo employs a harsh tone and a keen sense of rhetoric in order to develop her argument. She frequently uses questions in the article so as to make the audience reflect upon and question the facts she gives. The author endeavors to make the reader empathize with the families that have not had to suffer only the loss of the loved ones, but were also forced to endure the sight of their remains displayed and marketed as “freight”. She uses harsh words and highly critical tones in order to describe the past and the present abuses: “violated”, “massacre”, “calvary”. The present abuses add up to the useless massacres and persecutions that the Native Americans suffered because of conquerors ever since the American continent was discovered. The conclusion rounds up the argument by another appeal. This time, Harjo points to reburial of the remains as the only solution, simply appealing to the readers’ understanding of the meaning of family. The target that Harjo hits is the large American public. She makes the audience take the place of the abused briefly, in order to gain insight into the sufferance of the American Indians. Harjo creates harrowing images of the series of violent acts perpetrated on the Indians. She also endeavors the make the public understand better through allusions to specific issues of the American Indian cultures, especially their belief that the dead do not rest if they are not buried in sacred land. The flow of the essay is also very important, since the author punctuates the key moments with questions and appeals and follows a narrative structure when giving statistics and facts. The reader is affected by the examples especially since he is called to see the events from the inside, from the victim’s perspective.

Overall, Harjo lays out a winning argument against the use of the Indian remains as artifacts. The main strengths of her article are the rhetorical structure of the article as well as the employment of solid evidence. She exposes the abuses against the Indians but also asks the reader to take the place of the victims in order to understand better the inhumanity of these acts. Harjo’s use of statistical and moral evidence is both credible and convincing. The essay is effective in its condemnation of an unlawful practice as it appeals to the audience sense of righteousness, justice and humanity.

Works Cited:

Harjo, Susan Shown. “Last rites for Indian dead; treating remains like artifacts is intolerable.”   Los Angeles Times 108 (Sept 16, 1989): 8.

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