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|Wednesday, 26 November, 2014|
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama on Monday bestowed America's highest civilian honor on trailblazers in the arts, sports and politics, along with a couple of entertainers who are among his personal favorites.
The 18 notables who gathered in the White House East Room to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom left even the president himself in awe. Obama said the ceremony is one of his favorite events because it celebrates "people who have made America stronger and wiser and more humane and more beautiful."
Native writer, curator and activist Suzan Shown Harjo was among the honorees. Raised on an Oklahoma reservation by a Cheyenne mother and a Hodulgee Muskogee father, Harjo grew up to become one of the most effective advocates for Native American rights.
Obama said through her work in government and as the head of the National Congress of American Indians and the Morning Star Institute, she has helped preserve a million acres of Indian lands, helped develop laws preserving tribal sovereignty. She has repatriated sacred cultural items to tribes, while expanding museums that celebrate Native life. “Because of Suzan, more young Native Americans are growing up with pride in their heritage, and with faith in their future. And she has taught all of us that Native values make America stronger,” the President said.
Harjo has been a key figure in many important legislative battles including the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is reserved for individuals who have made "meritorious contributions" to U.S. security, world peace or cultural endeavors. Obama said he took great pleasure in being able to present the award to Ethel Kennedy, since it was her brother-in-law the former president who expanded and elevated the honor more than a half century ago.
Others receiving the award included rhythm and blues artist Stevie Wonder, actress Meryl Streep, NBC journalist Tom Brokaw, author Isabel Allende, actress Marlo Thomas, economist Robert Solow, former Rep. Abner Mikva of Illinois, physicist Mildred Dresselhaus and golfer Charlie Sifford. Composer Stephen Sondheim was scheduled to receive the award, but Obama said he couldn't make it and will be included in next year's class of honorees.
The loudest applause came when Obama gave posthumous medals to family members of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were slain in 1964 as they participated in a historic voter registration drive in Mississippi. Other posthumous awards were for choreographer Alvin Ailey and Reps. Patsy Mink of Hawaii and Edward Roybal of California, founder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
There also was a sustained cheer for Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell, who is retiring at the end of this year after the serving the longest tenure in congressional history, after he mustered the strength to stand and receive his medal.