Native American activist LaDonna Harris started early in life to address injustices wherever she found them. Raised by her maternal grandparents on allotment land in southern Oklahoma, her first language was Comanche and she grew up with that guiding vision.
As the high school sweetheart and then wife of U.S. Sen. Fred Harris, she headed to Washington, D.C., with him in her early 30s. On the national stage she found more power and resources to create change.
She was one of the first Senate wives to testify before Congress. President Lyndon Johnson assigned her to educate the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government on the unique role of American Indian tribes and their relationship with the federal government, in a course called, “Indian 101.” Her husband and her’s activism helped return Blue Lake, sacred land of Taos Pueblo, from federal holdings to the pueblo during Richard Nixon’s administration. She was also instrumental in getting land returned to Alaskan tribes and returning federal recognition to the Menominee tribe.
In her more than 60-year career, the list of her accomplishments in civil rights, world peace, the environment and women’s rights is long and ongoing. She was tapped as a vice presidential candidate in 1980 for the short-lived Citizens Party.
And in April, she was the keynote speaker at the Sage 2014 Making a Difference luncheon, which honors five young women who also have a guiding vision to create change in their communities.
Leading the effort
Now 83, Harris continues the work she started, sharing responsibilities with her daughter, Laura, executive director at Albuquerque-based Americans for Indian Opportunity, the national and international nonprofit that Harris founded in 1970. Part of its mission is to pass along traditional cultural and leadership values to a new generation, through its ambassadors program, a course offered to indigenous people from around the world. The program trains native professionals to incorporate their own tribes’ traditional values and perspectives to improve the lives of their people, while building a global indigenous coalition.
Harris’ work is detailed in a recent documentary, “LaDonna Harris: Indian 101,” by a great-niece, filmmaker Julianna Brannum. The film explores Harris’ achievements and personal struggles as they led her to become a voice for native people along with her contemporary work.
LaDonna Harris chatted with Sage magazine at her offices on 10th and Marquette, surrounded by pictures of her smiling with famous faces like Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Bill and Hillary Clinton and many others. She had recently returned from an AIO ambassadors’ trip to Ecuador.
What wisdom has guided you in your transitions from Temple, Okla., to Washington, D.C., and back to Albuquerque in the mid-1970s?
Comanche culture is so affectionate. They love the children. They talk to the children.
My grandmother converted and became one of the first Christians in our community. My grandfather would drive us to church but used to sit outside because he was Eagle medicine. There was never disagreement between them about who was right, but he didn’t convert. I started to worry about him and the things people would say about going to hell. I asked him, ‘Papa, what do you think when people say you’re wrong?’ And he told me, ‘Granddaughter, don’t ever try to take someone’s religion away from them, because it will hurt them and more importantly you will hurt yourself. It will come back on you.’ That advice has allowed me to embrace all different cultures and all different belief systems.
My grandmother taught me a good lesson that I share with the girls. I remember coming home from school crying because someone had called me the “N” word for us, a gut eater. She said, ‘Bless their hearts, they just don’t know any better.’ She told me if I let them get me mad then they win. It’s an Oklahoma thing. When someone acts out of ignorance, you just say ‘bless their hearts,’ because they are pitiful.
When you sat on national boards and committees, you were often surprised by how little your highly educated fellow board members knew about Indian life. Would you comment?
During the Johnson administration, many Indians in Oklahoma didn’t qualify for the War on Poverty programs because they lived on allotments, not tribal lands. We had come to OU (University of Oklahoma) to talk about race relations. They couldn’t understand the issues Indians had. I was always the stoic Indian, but I couldn’t articulate what I needed to tell them, and I burst into tears.
Later you sat on a board for mental health, a subject close to your heart, because you thought mental health had answers for the high dropout rates of Indian youth. But you weren’t heard. Why were your hopes dashed?
I was on a committee for children’s mental health for the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and when they would make suggestions I couldn’t agree with, I would say I don’t think that would work for Indian children. I wasn’t heard. You know how it is when you are patronized for being a woman. I was so disappointed.
One of the pieces of mental health is being able to say who you are, but society was not allowing you to be who you are because you aren’t part of the textbook history.
Why is your documentary “La Donna Harris: Indian 101,” important to you, and why are still so passionate about your work?
Because people still don’t get it. There is still a need for education. It’s part of American history, but people don’t know it. Internationally we wouldn’t be in the trouble we are in places like Afghanistan, if they understood us. We’re all tribal people. We are all the same. If (leaders) had an understanding of how we function as tribal people at home, they could understand the world better.
What advice do you have for young women starting their careers and their families?
Everything is relationships. It’s one of the four Rs we teach in our ambassador training. In Indian communities we say we are related to all things and all people. We have stardust in our DNA. We are all part of a bigger organism. We are separate, but all ecologically connected. I didn’t do any of this all by myself, because I always had support.
If we are related to all things, we have responsibility to each other, to our family, to our community … to the world. The Earth is our mother, we have relationship and a responsibility.
Reciprocity is about our interconnectedness. Our relationships and responsibilities shape our roles in life as reciprocal. Understanding that all things are connected and cyclical is fundamental.
Redistribution. Generosity. Our reciprocal relationships and responsibilities guide us to share our resources. The collective and communal traditions of our ancestors teach us that wealth must be shared for the greater good of the whole.
Why did you adopt actor Johnny Depp into the Comanche tribe?
In Comanche culture, everyone has value. In Indian society, we all need each other to keep alive and keep who we are alive. We Comanches think the bigger family you have, the wealthier you are. I was reading a sad story about him and I said to Laura, ‘Let’s adopt him.’ He was playing Tonto (in “Lone Ranger,” filmed in New Mexico) as a Comanche. He identifies as Indian. He feels he’s Indian but no one acknowledges him. So we adopted him into the tribe. It’s a lovely relationship. We gave him a Comanche dictionary, and now he texts my son, Byron, in Comanche. He’s part of our family.
PERSONAL: 83, born on a farm in southern Oklahoma, and raised by her maternal Comanche grandparents, Tabbytite and Wickkie, during the Great Depression. Now divorced from former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris, she was married to him at age 18 for 35 years. They have three children, Kathryn Harris Tijerina, who heads a nonprofit in Santa Fe; Byron Harris, who works in television production in Los Angeles; and Laura Harris, executive director of Americans for Indian Opportunity. After serving in the Senate from 1964-1973, the Harrises moved to Albuquerque.