Suzan Shown Harjo: Racial buzz phrases after Obama
It’s one week after the Nov. 4 national election and I’m still marveling at the fact of it. Like most friends in the Washington, DC area and throughout Indian country, I haven’t stopped crying, laughing, smiling and talking in short, breathy sentences.

“Sen. Barack Obama has been elected to be the 44th President of the United States.” Minutes after that amazing announcement on all television networks, the quiet of weeknight Capitol Hill changed abruptly to sounds of victory and relief. People yelled and chanted, “OBAMA!” and “Yes, we did!” Others sat in their cars, honking their horns and hyperventilating. Everyone’s face glistened with tears.

It was a glorious cacophony, and brought to mind the biblical exhortation to thanksgiving that is variously translated as, “Shout unto the Lord” and “Let us make a joyful noise.”

I don’t know if I shouted on the street, but once back inside, I sang a Cheyenne song of giving thanks and a Muscogee one of jubilation, because our peoples say, “If you have a song inside, you must let it sing, or it will make you sick.”

Washingtonians – the nearest neighbors to the White House – voted 92.9% to 6.5% for Obama. Voters in the District of Columbia, which has the same number (three) of electoral votes as seven states (AK, DE, MT, ND, SD, VT, WY), turned out in greater numbers than did Alaskan voters, by some 8,000. Nationwide, Asian, Catholic, Hispanic and Native American voters cast their ballots in high numbers for Obama, as did young people age 18 to 29. Jewish voters went for Obama by 78% and African American voters went for Obama by a whopping 95%.

There were spontaneous celebrations in big cities and small towns and on campuses and reservations. People hoarded newspapers with historic headlines: “OBAMA: Racial Barrier Falls in Heavy Turnout“ (The New York Times), “Obama Makes History: U.S. Decisively Elects First Black President / Democrats Expand Control of Congress” (The Washington Post), “A dream fulfilled” (USA Today).

People around the country and world declared kinship with the President-elect. A multicultural man with a nuanced intellect and even temperament, he is a son of Kenya, a brother of Indonesia, a man of Chicago with roots in Hawaii and Kansas and an adopted member of the Black Feather family of Crow Nation.

Oddly, given Obama’s diverse ancestry, upbringing and experience, many white election analysts referred to the President-elect, the era and the world as “post-racial,” despite objections to the term by African American commentators. It didn’t seem to register with those using the term that they were remarking on the candidate’s race and the racial barrier he broke, while proclaiming the world as beyond race.

“Post-racial” reminds me of the term “post-Indian,” which I began to notice after our splendid National Museum of the American Indian opened on the Mall in 2004. In that context, “post-Indian” meant that we Native peoples have our museum, so it’s time to get past being Native peoples and talking about treaty rights, land claims and such. Since then, some folks inside the museum have used the term, to general derision, to mean that our identity now may move from tribal citizenry to post- or non-Indian-ness, as if we want or would accept movement in that direction.

In the context of the national election, “post-racial” is being used as code for this: African American people now have an African American president and that should end the discussions around race and reparations and the like. Actually, Obama will be the president of every one of us. What is “post-racial” about this election is that the majority of white voters ended their 43-president pattern of voting for the white guy.

The day after our national museum opened, and today, we Native people are still the most economically impoverished segment of American society; we still lack proper health care; and we still have federal barriers in the way of our economic advancement and religious freedom.

The day and week after this national election, African American people and the country as a whole are in a precarious financial situation and in two wars. This is no time for “post-racial” and “post-Indian” claptrap. This is the time for all of us to help the President-elect accomplish the things he pledged to do.

Our Cheyenne People were given an instruction a long time ago: “The nation shall be strong so long as the hearts of the women are not on the ground.” It is my job to be optimistic, so the Obama campaign had me at “Hope.” And our hearts are not on the ground.

Hope is tangible. Change is real. We hoped and worked for change, and we won big. This is no time to think or act small, or to mistake or accept buzz phrases for progress.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is a writer, curator and policy advocate, who is President of The Morning Star Institute in Washington, DC. A founding trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian, she also is former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and past news director of the American Indian Press Association. She can be reached at

Related Stories:
Suzan Shown Harjo: Sen. Obama's words matter more (10/27)