Produced by the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University in 2004, the landmark “Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times” interview series presents the oral histories of contemporary leaders who have played instrumental roles in Native nations' struggles for sovereignty, self-determination, and treaty rights. The leadership themes presented in these unique videos provide a rich resource that can be used by present and future generations of Native nations, students in Native American studies programs, and other interested groups.
In this interview, longtime advocate LaDonna Harris discusses her decades of tireless work on behalf of Indian tribes, civil rights, and world peace. Her most compelling task today is forming new leaders through the Ambassadors program of Americans for Indian Opportunity, the Albuquerque-based organization she created in 1972.
This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Institute for Tribal Government.
Harris, LaDonna. "Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times" (interview series). Institute for Tribal Government, Portland State University. Portland, Oregon. 2004. Interview.
"Hello. My name is Kathryn Harrison. I am presently the Chairperson of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. I have served on my council for 21 years. Tribal leaders have influenced the history of this country since time immemorial. Their stories have been handed down from generation to generation. Their teaching is alive today in our great contemporary tribal leaders whose stories told in this series are an inspiration to all Americans both tribal and non-tribal. In particular it is my hope that Indian youth everywhere will recognize the contributions and sacrifices made by these great tribal leaders."
"LaDonna Harris, a citizen of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, today lives in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico, where she continues a decade's long advocacy on behalf of tribal America. Her activism has also taken her into civil rights, the women's movement, environmental protection and world peace. Raised in rural Oklahoma during the Great Depression by her maternal grandparents, one an eagle medicine man and the other a devout Christian, Harris absorbed the respect that her grandparents had for one another, a quality she models today in her respect for diverse traditions. She went to public schools in Oklahoma and married her high school sweetheart, Fred Harris, who served as a Democratic member of the Oklahoma State Senate for eight years. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1964. LaDonna's public service career began as the wife of Senator Harris and the two were complementary partners in many social justice initiatives. As she gained political momentum and found the strength of her own voice, LaDonna got 60 Oklahoma tribes together and founded Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity, an organization that sought to rectify the stifling socio-economic conditions that were impacting Indian communities and other minorities. For her work in civil rights she was inducted into the National Black Sorority. LaDonna worked with leading Democrats including Sgt. Shriver and she campaigned for Hubert Humphrey in his presidential bid in 1968. In her partnership with Senator Harris, LaDonna was able to be a strong force in Congress where she was the first senator's wife to testify before a congressional committee. She exerted a beneficial influence on legislation such as the return of Taos Blue Lake to the people of Taos Pueblo. President Lyndon Johnson appointed her to chair the National Women's Advisory Council of the War on Poverty. In that era she was witness to the gains that tribes made through the Office of Economic Opportunity and the emergence of numerous great tribal leaders. LaDonna ventured into electoral politics herself in 1980. A founder of Common Cause, she was the vice presidential nominee on the Citizens Party ticket with Barry Commoner. Her political work also took her to the streets. In the early ‘70s she picketed the White House for equal pay for equal work. She was a founding member of the National Women's Political Caucus and still finds time to get together for fun with the Comanche Amazons. She founded the Multi-Tribal Americans for Indian Opportunity, AIO, in 1970, an organization that is a catalyst for new concepts and opportunities for Indian peoples. One of LaDonna's great passions is the weaving of traditional values such as dispute resolution into modern governance systems. In 1993, AIO created the acclaimed American Indian Ambassadors Program which provides two-year fellowships to Native students. The young ambassadors are instructed in tribal values and modes of government and sent to foreign countries to observe Indigenous governments first hand. AIO has partnered with a Maori, New Zealand, group in an initiative to foster the self-determination capabilities of Indigenous communities. LaDonna's international activism is spurred by the conviction that tribal America has a great contribution to make to global social justice. Just as new leaders are blessed with LaDonna's spirit in the Ambassadors Program, in 2003 she passed the executive leadership of AIO to her daughter, Laura Harris, though LaDonna remains strongly involved. She has two other children, Kathryn and Byron and one teenage grandson, Sam Fred Goodhope. LaDonna Harris has been honored with many awards and appointments. Her life and work have given depth and richness to the meaning of public service."
Growing up in Cotton County, Oklahoma
"I grew up on my grandparent's allotment. My grandmother and my grandfather had land abutting that. He put together, my great grandfather put together several of his children's allotments so he had a large base there and it was at the forks of Cash Creek in Cotton County, Oklahoma. So in relative terms we were well off and my grandfather who was a Spanish captive knew a little bit or recognized the necessity of rich soil so that was why we had...my grandfather was a pretty successful farmer so in relative terms we were well off in Cotton County in those days as you would say. My father went to California looking for work, he was Irish, and my mother went to work for Indian Health and so it was determined I would stay with my grandparents, my sister and I. And it was probably the most wonderful thing that happened to me because they were steeped in their Comanche culture and Comanche values and that was how I learned my value system and really has brought me to this place actually. My grandfather was a...never gave up the old religion. He had some eagle medicine as well as peyote. But grandmother was the second Comanche to be converted Christianity and so it was an interesting value system to grow up in. I really think that grandmother was a beautiful Christian woman but it was because she had Comanche values rather than following Christianity as such cause she was the matriarch of the family after her mother died, she became the matriarch of all of the Red Elk family. So I had a very strong grandmother and a very wonderful grandfather who would take us to church on Sunday and we would go to church and listen to all of the preacher preach and then we we'd come home and papa would sing his peyote songs in the evening as the sun was going down so it was a very rich environment that I grew up in. And grandmother of course still...Comanche was spoken at home. Unfortunately I don't speak it as well, though I understand it very well. But I'm learning, we're taking Comanche classes now, the children and I. So it was a wonderful childhood and you just, you had this sense of belonging to everyone. Grandmother would see elder Comanches on our little county seat, Walters, Oklahoma, and they would just chat in Comanche and I always sat and listened to them and I would ask grandmother, ‘How are we related to them?' cause she would call them by this kinship name and come to find out we're not really blood kin but we had this long family relationship that created this kinship that continued from I think it was like two generations ago our family did something with this family that created this relationship. So I always felt that I belonged to everybody."
"She had a sense of style about her and we'd go into town with her and go into a little department store that we had in our home town and they would say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Tabbytite, let me show you our new materials,' or whatever. So she was always treated like the grand lady that she was. And so it always gave you a sense of pride. What she really told me, she said, ‘I can't advise you because I won't have ever been where you're going so I can't tell you how to...you should act or what you should think but what I'd like for you to do is to have your own set of values and stay with them.' And she would never, in Indian way you never tell a child, this is what you should, how you should behave or the Comanches didn't anyway. They took you with them and so I would go with her to funerals, to family events and things and it was through those ways that I learned Comanche ways and because I showed interest then she would take me to another learning experience. And it was that combination of her selecting me to go with her to these, for these Comanche occasions like funerals and gatherings and that was...that she recognized that I had some spark or something there that she wanted to nurture and I just assumed that responsibility. It was a wonderful thing. And then also she said that she didn't understand all the things that I was having to learn and all the experiences that I would go through but to set my own pace and so I pretty much did that. And then it was interesting too, there was no conflict between papa's medicine and her ways and papa would say, ‘That's important for her, that's important for her to...that's her medicine way,' he would say, ‘and what's good for her is not necessarily good for me and it's important that you know that about other people.' He said, ‘You should never take their religion, mess with other people's religion or medicine,' as we say in Comanche way. And he said, ‘Because you will hurt them and more important you'll hurt yourself.'"
Relatives: grandparents and politics
"I had an uncle and really had a lot of different relatives in the military and he would listen to the news and listen to all of the...and he could discuss it. He could tell you, though he couldn't read he could tell you all the events. And my sisters and my mother bought Look magazine and those big beautiful pictures, Life and Look and then he'd call me over and in Comanche he said, ‘Tell me who these people are,' and I would tell him and he would make the association by listening to the news. When Fred would come to visit he would have these, try to have these conversations. He would talk real loud because he spoke in broken in English but he could curse really well in English. But his English was very broken cause he ran away from Indian boarding schools when he was young and never learned to read or write. But he'd have discussions about Truman firing MacArthur with Fred and Fred said, ‘Well, when did papa learn, how did he learn to read? Did he go to Indian boarding schools?' And I said, ‘He can't read.' And he said, ‘Well, how does he know all of these things?' But he could just, he figured all these things out for himself. He had this method so he could keep us up on current events and he was a strong Democrat. So here's my two little grandparents with their braids and shawls and going off and they'd be the first one to vote in their precinct. So all of that I inherited from them and then having married a politician it's just gone on and on and I guess I continue to still be involved."
School years, discrimination and questioning authority
"School was another thing. That was a whole different story. Turns out I'm severely dyslexic and so I don't learn like other people learn. So I had to learn, study the teacher and figure out how I could satisfy her without having to go through the exercises as she explained them. So I think that's one of the things that gave me a lot of talent of understanding people in office or people that we've had to deal with, the Indian communities had to deal with because I had to do that all my life. There were also forms of discrimination, mostly ignorance; it was more ignorance than it was direct. Occasionally there would be, people would get mad at us and...we rode the school bus into...we had to walk a mile, get on a school bus and then go into town and sometimes we would have encounters with some of the Anglo children there and they'd call us gut eaters. I remember that particular found so hurtful. And I came home crying to Gagu and I asked her, ‘Why would they say that and what did they mean by it?' Of course I had had tripe and as we all ended up eating tripe and most people in the world did, then we quit all of a sudden here in the United States. But anyway I came and was crying to grandmother about it and she said, ‘Oh, they just don't know better, don't pay any attention to them.' She said, ‘Besides they eat crawdads and muscle shells.' That seemed to satisfy me, I don't know why. It took me a great long time to overcome that idea about how to learn to eat oysters and clams, which I thoroughly love now but it was...there were some events like that that were painful. And even teachers, mostly just out of ignorance that were very hurtful. But in the church, the visiting ministers I found very hurtful and very painful about...that our ways had no value and we had to give them up in order to be a good person is really how they...at least that's how it was interpreted to me and the same way in the schools in many ways, that you had to give up who you were in order to become educated. It was always an either/or, they always put it in a position you had to give this up in order to become educated or become a good person or become however they put it ws always an either/or situation. I got some...I think it was all the loving and nurturing that I got that I said, ‘Well, something's wrong with it,' and made me question authority, I think it was mostly the ministers and so ever since then I've never necessarily believed anybody in authority. I always question it and say, ‘Well, they may be a good person but maybe they don't know or maybe they're not a very good person and we should figure out some other way of dealing with this issue.' Growing up like that is I think though it was very painful at the time that it gave me some skills that I still use today."
Dreams as a child and marriage
"I think I had what most little girls wanted, the picket fence, being married and kids and picket fence and kind of that was my dream. My mother and sister had great hopes for me cause I did get through school with pretty good reasonable grades and they had great hopes that I would go on and do great things. I was the one that was going to be able to do these things. Then I married my high school sweetheart, right out of high school and so they were kind of disappointed. They thought I should go on to college. My mother thought I should be a model. She had thought I was so neat or something, I don't know exactly what. But both of them thought that I was marrying below myself. This is Fred Harris. But we...he and I just, it was a wonderful relationship. We both had strengths and weaknesses and we fulfilled each other's weaknesses and strengths, we complemented each other's weaknesses and strengths and so we became good friends and good partners for many years."
Putting her husband through college
"Well, with just a high school education it was quite difficult. The first job I had, which I dearly loved was working in the library and all the new publications that would come in I would help put them in the proper place and the magazines and things that I knew what department they went to, it was working with one of the librarians there and working with new publications so it was always exciting to be around those beautiful, wonderful books full of great things. But then a new librarian came and reorganized it and did me out of a job and then I worked for continuing education and reproduced classes. They used to reproduce them by mimeograph machine and send them out to, people would take classes outside of the classroom and that was my job. When Fred was still in law school he ran for House of Representatives in Oklahoma and he was the youngest man to at that time, he was running against...and he lost that...he was running against an older person, a county commissioner and here he was still in college. He lost that campaign which probably was a good thing. It was by a very small, like 42 votes as I remember and so the next time he ran he ran for the State Senate and was elected and so we've been in campaigns ever since school where I'm always stuffing envelopes or doing something. But I was the stoic Indian girl. All this time from all through school and the first 10 or 12 maybe even 20 years of our marriage I was still very stoic, the stereotype of not speaking out and it was a form of protection I recognized later is to not to allow people to hurt me. If I was quiet and would observe them I would figure them out so I could interact with them in a way that I felt comfortable with. So it was a method that I used and it became very valuable in the campaign after that. We were the first people that used television. I was the only wife that would go to the State Senate and be around what was doing. I would go to like all the mental health hospitals and make reports back to him cause he was head of that committee. I would sit in committee hearings and he would ask my advice because he'd gotten dependent on me how I read people, how I saw them or my insights about them. He would depend on my insights about them and then we'd use Comanche to talk politically about, ‘here comes someone, here comes your brother, pay attention or here comes someone that doesn't like you,' not necessarily doesn't like you but you don't get on well so heads up. So we would talk to each other that way and Comanche became very valuable that way as well and Fred himself became a great student of Comanche culture and learned the language and can speak pretty well and he sings, can sing Comanche songs and he still does, still loves...of course everybody just loved him. We would take my grandmother to church. We had lost my grandfather by then and we would take my Gagu to church and I had a great uncle who still preached in Comanche and we would go, Fred would go and I would interpret what he was saying in his sermon. Of course then he learned all the songs and then we would go and have lunch with my great aunt. So we very much we would take grandmother with us every place we went and she even campaigned. She had a Fred Harris shawl, she was a great campaigner, she loved it."
Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity
"About that same time the University of Oklahoma was having a human relations study and it was going to be about Black and White relations and labor and management. So they'd invited Fred and Fred said, ‘Oh, I'm just out of school, I don't want to go back to a classroom situation so why don't you invite LaDonna and you'll get two for one and she'll contribute and then I'll get the full impact of what it is you want.' And so I went and I said, ‘What about...' and of course I was still in my stoic Indian woman phase and I said, ‘Well, what about Indian people,' when we were talking about Black/White issues and they said, ‘Oh, well, Indians don't have problems, the Bureau of Indian Affairs takes care of that.' So I burst into tears and said, ‘You don't understand.' I burst into tears because I was so inarticulate, I felt so frustrated I couldn't tell them how, what the situation was in that how the Bureau... So out of that frustration I got two major university professors involved and we started, they started coming to Lawton, Oklahoma, to my home and we would gather up the Comanches, mostly relatives, and we'd talk about what are the issues and what do we need to learn that we can be more articulate and make our case better and those kinds of things. And so it was the beginning of Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity. It was actually in my living room and then we started moving out to other towns and eastern Oklahoma and we met, ran into a great deal of resistance at that time. The five tribes of eastern Oklahoma, their chiefs were not elected, they were appointed by the Department of Interior so they didn't even have the right to choose their own leadership. So we caused a lot of turmoil over in eastern Oklahoma but it was a great learning experience. Also civil rights came along at the same time. So one day a week I would spend on integrating our hometown of Lawton and then the next time it would be Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity. Sometimes we would be in both groups and many of the Comanches were a part of that first gathering. We'd work on helping the Blacks integrate Lawton, going to restaurants and just sitting down and having food at a restaurant. It wasn't very...it was at that same time over in western Oklahoma they still had signs ‘No Indians and Dogs Allowed,' but we were in Lawton where I grew up in Walters. We were accepted in a great degree. There was a lot of ignorance but we were accepted but the Blacks were really discriminated against. So we were working on that and then we were working...so all of a sudden I just came into my own, all those skills that I learned came into become very important. And also that gave me organizational skills that I didn't have so the combination of hanging out with friends at the legislature and organizing communities both working with the Black community and the Indian community separately interestingly enough, separately though there were many of us, Indians like Iola Hayden and others, Bill Gover, Kevin Gover's dad, were a part of integrating Lawton cause we saw it as we could relate to what... they couldn't go to the movies, they couldn't go to the restaurants, they couldn't go to the amusement parks and so we integrated our whole town. This was way early, about the same time as the sit-ins in the south. So we learned a lot from that. We organized the first statewide Indian organization in Oklahoma because we had the tribes that were dislocated and forced into Oklahoma and then us plains people. We used to say the Five Civilized Tribes and the rest of us on the western side of the state. So that was a great accomplishment to have all the...there's, I've forgotten now how many tribes we have in Oklahoma but to have them all...and you could almost draw a line, the eastern tribes and the western tribes so to have them all come together and start working together. And then we took advantage of the War on Poverty and started organizing the communities. And Oklahoma wasn't, didn't have...they weren't entitled to funds because we didn't have reservation so that the OIO funds went to the county and the county was supposed to bring everybody in the community and of course they were totally ignoring the Indian community. So we made that case, we changed the policy and we funds into Oklahoma for the Indian community to organize themselves. When we started Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity there was no handbook, there wasn't anything written about how you organize communities. There wasn't anything written about civil rights that you could take say, ‘Well, let's get this book out and see how somebody else did it,' there was nothing to go by. We organized a statewide Indian youth group and then we used people like John Gardner and Sgt. Shriver and Bobby Kennedy all came to talk to our Indian youth in Oklahoma and Fritz Mondale. We gave them a prestigious opportunity because they were seeing people that other people in the school system didn't. But we challenged them that they had to participate in the school activities as well as community activities to be selected to come to OU to hear these men, these very recognizable people to come and participate in that program. So it was kind of a carrot so to speak of them participating as a full, within their school system. So it was a very...it was one of my exciting learning periods and also trying to learn to talk and explain how I felt about things and not only how I felt on trying and experimenting on what can work and being very conscious of cultural differences because we had so many tribes in Oklahoma and then the woodlands people and the plains people. We had all kinds of cultures there and so that made you conscious. And of course we had intermarried with the Kiowas, I had Kiowa relatives and recognizing but honoring. That was one of the things I never had trouble with because working with any kind of people I think being a Comanche, growing up Comanche taught you to say, ‘Well, what is good for the Apache is not good for Comanches,' but you honor their way because that's their way and it's good for them. So that's what I learned about being a Comanche and it allowed me to work with all kinds of people, that their way was different but that's great. You're having experience of a different way and I always tried to tell young people when we were having our youth groups that, ‘Just think that you have your Indian way to look at a...you have two ways of looking at a problem and you can solve, you're so much wiser than most people because you can look at it from your cultural perspective and you can look at it from your learned Western perspective. So you can look at an issue in two different ways,' because I had learned by that time that was what I was doing."
The War on Poverty years and Indian human rights
"Of course it was an exciting time because we had the War on Poverty going and civil rights was going. It was some real positive things that happened and I always say there were a lot of critics on the War on Poverty but I think the Indian community, most of the people that Gerald interviewed probably had a background somewhat related to... I know that Eddie Tullis' friends and Philip Martin, Ada Deer, all of us came through that door of opportunity. What it did was it allowed a platform for young emerging leaders to come out. The Philip Martins, the Ada Deers, the Joe De la Cruz', all of us and Peter McDonald, Peterson Zah, all my peer group literally found a forum to show some leadership, came through. And what happened was we were able to use that department to break what I call the stranglehold of the colonial dominance of the Department of Interior. They had colonialized us, they'd taken over managing our lands, they'd tell us how governments ought to be run, they were educating our kids. They took control of our, completely of our lives and the leadership that evolved out of the War on Poverty program we organized against the Bureau and we put it...and it lost its place, it's never regained, it's never regained its prominence in our lives because we took control of our own lives and that was the beginning. The ideas and the energy that came out of that group of people, that early ‘60s leadership, was just an amazing reservoir of new ideas. We changed the administration, Ada Deer changed termination when she, not only did she get her tribe back and made it a tribe again but she changed Congress who declared that they would never use termination as a form of governance. So those are the kinds of things that the Council of Energy Resource Tribes...just a few days ago, actually we honored a lawyer who was much involved in helping us get the Council of Energy Resource Tribes organized and once they got started they changed the federal government's attitude about that they would no longer stand for them managing our natural resources. And after CERT got organized the fishing tribes got organized, the timber tribes organized, now agriculture's organized. We organized around natural resources and so we've changed the policies, we've changed the way we do business, we're in control of them and it's just made, nobody could have made as many mistakes in our behalf as we could have...I mean as the government did for us so we certainly would be better to make our own mistakes and learn from them than to allow that to continue. And I think the example of that is this horrible trust lawsuit that's going on, the trust funds lawsuit that's going on. That's a residue of the mismanagement of the Bureau of our resources."
In the Lyndon Johnson era, hearings on Indian problems such as relocation
"He appointed I think seven Indian leaders and myself, they were all elected leaders like Wendell Chino and all the great old timers of that period, Red Lake, Roger Jordain, Navajo, Peter McDonald, they were members of this...and we sat with the cabinet. I was the only non-elected official. And we hadn't organized Americans for Indian Opportunity and we sat with them and it was a wonderful idea. The kind of power we could have had if that had maintained itself. And of course then the war and Johnson didn't run again and Hubert Humphrey was our chair, that chaired, the Vice President chaired this meeting. So I took on as my responsibility in that group was urban Indians. So I had hearings of urban Indians in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Minnesota, Chicago and it was to say, because we found out in our OIO that we were all moving to the country, I mean to the cities because of relocation for one thing and then the following of relocation people were in great numbers migrating to the cities for jobs. So I said, ‘Well, just because they're not on the reservation doesn't stop them from being Indian and they deserve services,' and that was my whole point was to go and have these hearings. And this was before AIM was ever, I guess they might have been getting started but they hadn't really gotten organized. But it showed me the dilemma of Indian people in the cities like San Francisco and it was a very difficult time taking people from middle of rural Oklahoma or New Mexico, plopping them down in cities. I had cousins who went to Detroit who were relocated to Detroit and they had numbers of suicides. We need to recognize that one of the things we've done here, I've done here...I'm skipping around a little bit. What we have done here as Comanches is to organize to work with our own tribe, with our own community. So we have in Albuquerque, we call, we're the Mountain Band of Comanches because we live over the mountains from our folks and our leadership comes and pays attention to us. They come for election and I think that's a very important thing. I think the Menominees are doing that to their relatives in Chicago. They have a banquet, they recognize their accomplishments, the leadership of the tribe goes and meets with them and I think we're seeing more of the Cherokees come to New Mexico too. So we're seeing some real difference but that was my big first I guess trying to make a difference about our people who were relocated in the cities and had great adventures, there's wonderful stories about those times. I was working with Sgt. Shriver, I was on his advisory group, I testified before Congress, I was the first senate wife to testify before Congress. It was about OIO and to make sure that it got funded and making sure that Indian programs were still in the legislature, a few years I would never have thought I would be able to appear before a congressional committee and testify like that. But it was, those are the kinds of things...and it was different style. Dennis and all of the AIM guys were all good friends. In fact we were all in one building at one time. Kind of their style of confrontation was...my style was different; I would learn to figure people out and try to make it work. Theirs was, cause they were going still through their frustrating stages like I was when I cried and I think that frustrating was this confrontational kind of politic, which also brought us, got a lot of attention. And what it did, people like for our organization Americans for Indian Opportunity, we looked less radical and so therefore they would call on us to do things and we would help AIM get out of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We were always involved in a kind of a different, in a different way but we were all involved in the same thing. And it was mostly because of their calling attention to the American public by their action really helped us to move the issues more effectively so we give them great credit for that."
Navigating roles as a woman, activist and senator's wife
"I remember campaigning in Oklahoma and women coming up to me and saying, ‘Well, what are you doing out here campaigning,' like it was a bad thing, that I shouldn't have been doing. Fred would get comments from some of the people in the campaign, ‘There's too much LaDonna in the campaign.' But we'd just ignore it because we depended on each other to do things. But when I got to Washington and I had worked in the Black community in my hometown and I got on the board of the Urban League, talk about strange. So I was on the board of probably the most prominent Black organization and very active at that time and I...but I was a token. I was both a token woman and a token Indian and so I had to play those roles. I'm a little older than some of the other women you're interviewing and I played those roles. I recognized I was token but I felt that it was an opportunity to learn, I was going to learn something from them that I could take home and use, I could use in our Indian community if I learned some of the strategies they were using. The Urban Coalition, I was involved in things like that. Of course I got involved in the women's movement. I guess being a little older I wasn't as sensitive to it except I always felt like I was being patronized, I always felt like I was being patronized because I wasn't as well educated as some people but it was really being patronized because I was a woman. And I thought, ‘Well, if they're patronizing because I don't have that many degrees,' but it was really because I was a woman."
Understandings of leadership, culturally and socially
"What I always recognize is that after we have said something in Americans for Indian Opportunity and it becomes part of the vocabulary of the rest of the Indian community. We may not get credit for it but we're the one who put it forward, the idea forward, the language forward in so many different ways. In Indian culture you're not supposed to put yourself ahead of the group anyway, Comanche culture. But it was perfectly all right for me to, as long as they were carrying on the ideas that was the satisfaction you got. You didn't have to be the one to do it. If it was Peter McDonald who was head of CERT, that was wonderful. They were taking on the responsibility of the idea that I had and that's where the satisfaction came in. I don't have to be the one out front. And it's always been that way. I think it's a Comanche value, a cultural value that we should honor...we say leadership is shared responsibility. If you look at leadership in the dictionary it says control, power over and those kinds of things. Well, you know that that's culturally inappropriate. So you figure out things that are culturally appropriate that make people comfortable in what it is you're going to share with them, they're more able to accept it. And we really believe in socializing people, having like a reception before a meeting so people get to know each other as individuals. My art as a hostess is always to find someone...if someone is standing there, find somebody that would know something that they are interested in and put them together and they always think that they had the greatest party at my house but all of it was putting people together and making them comfortable because I know how it is to be standing off by yourself and looking in and not carrying on conversation when everybody else is."
Strategies for getting things done
"It's how do you equalize people so that...cause we had become so accustomed of the government coming and talking down to us, talking to us and at us rather than with us and so we set up, everything that we ever set up we set up where it equalizes the people because we believe everybody has a contribution to make. And even the least of us have something to contribute to the thinking of the group to make you understand, we better consider this piece of it because if we don't see the total picture we won't make the right decisions. So that's been kind of our philosophy. And I might say that I've used every method. I've flirted sometimes, I have burst into tears on other occasions. I know that it just horrifies, particularly, I was with the Secretary of Labor and we wanted him to set up an Indian desk. I've forgotten exactly what all the details, and he just couldn't hear me. I would make a little presentation and he just wasn't hearing. I would say it another way, he just still couldn't get it. And Bobby Kilberg leaned over and said, whispered to me to tell him in this other way. So by that time I was very frustrated with him and so I started to say it and I said it in a way that made me feel emotional and I just burst into tears and he just said, ‘Okay, all right, anything you want,' just kind of get me out of the room. I'm not too good to use all kinds of methods that I had because when you run into someone who's going to stop what it is you have to figure out some way to get around them. I don't recommend crying but you need to figure out some way, if you have to get around that person how do you...how can you either influence that person or get around them. So I've had lots of experience in that field."
The great advances of the ‘70s
"Well, there were three things that happened almost one right after the other that seemed, that gave us some successes. First was the Taos Blue Lake, the Taos people getting their Blue Lake back. And Fred got very involved in that. It was during the Nixon administration. I had befriended a young woman who was a White House fellow. This is the importance of one of the things you learn as a Comanche or as an Indian is relationship is all there is. You have to develop relationships with people. Well, I had developed this relationship with this young woman and she was working in the White House. She got me into the Nixon White House. It was so wonderful and we talked to Lynn Garmet there and I said, ‘You had pictures, went all over the United States with the Taos people when you visited them. This administration owes them something,' and said, ‘Couldn't you help us get the Blue Lake back?' And so he called up the leadership of the Republican party and said, ‘Can you work with...would you send staff over and work with Mrs. Harris and Fred on this?" and so we made it a bipartisan effort. Of course a lot of people had contributed to it along the way to even get it to that point but Fred made a commitment to get it through and he helped with all the pieces of legislation coming out of a committee in order that it could get...cause we knew we had the votes on the floor but we didn't have the votes, necessarily know we had the votes in the committee. My role in all of that was to make it a civil rights...it was a human rights, it was a Native American issue. So I would get all these little groups of people that I'd worked with on civil rights to come in and make it a civil rights issue and so we had this...took it from all kinds of angles and got the support to get them to call members of Congress to help us through it and it became a bipartisan issue and it passed. So that was our...and the success of that we all celebrated, all of us that had anything to do with it and there were many people. Of course the Taos people themselves were the most important people. Then came the Menominee restoration. Probably my biggest contribution to that was giving Ada a place to sleep every once in awhile. She would come to town and she would talk to Fred and I about strategy about how she should go about it. Well, I wasn't sure that we could turn the Congress around on termination. Because I saw them but I was not going to tell my sister that this was a lost cause because she believed in it so strongly. By gosh, she went up there and walked those halls and she would find friends like us to stay with in town. We'd haul her into town and she would come back to Fred's office and come back and stay with us. She would talk about different members of the Congress that we might have known or would know and talk about strategy. But basically she did all the hard work on that and then of course Fred got to play a part in the actual legislation. But even more than returning...restoring the Menominees was that she got the Congress to say that they would no longer use termination as a policy. Now that, I'll always hold that up with members of the Congress today so that was... It was not just the Menominees. It was the whole negativeness of termination. So that was a wonderful thing."
The primacy of relationships
"So I really believe in developing relationships with people that you're going to have to work with and people who can...my daughters tease me and say, ‘You're the only one who goes and gives a hug to the red cap at the airport.' And I said, ‘That's a very important person in my life,' because I'm always going in and out of the airport in Washington, D.C. and they say, ‘Oh, Mrs. Harris,' and they'll take my luggage, they won't take my tips, they take care of me. If I'm running late they'll get me on the plane. So people, all people are important in different kinds of ways and you have to recognize the value that people have. Comanche society says all people have value, all people have value and you have to value them. And if you value them that helps you get things done. And if you truly value them as human beings and develop a relationship with them it works, it's a lot easier that way."
About not giving up
"There have been times when I've felt so tired from traveling or something that I would think, ‘Well, I'm going to take off a month or something.' But it's something, a responsibility that my grandmother gave me. I don't know if that's part of it. In Comanche society we believe if good things come your way and you're privileged, and I consider myself privileged having had all those experiences, then you're more obligated to give back, that you have an obligation to give back. So that's...I don't see how that could stop with age. It has to continue."
As Senator Harris's wife
"When I went to Washington I was going to be the perfect senator's wife until I could figure out that I could do other things. And one of them was when we had guests from Oklahoma was to give them the tour of the Capitol building. So I would take all of these wonderful Oklahomans visiting us to tour the Capitol building and we would wind up at the Vice President's office in the Capitol building. And if he was there he would always come out and shake hands and take pictures with us. We became very close friends. We traveled with him to Europe once and traveled also to Korea but one of the...but because...He admired Fred because of all the work he did and like for instance he presided over the Senate and as a freshman senator so that he would learn how the senate worked and so he would know all the rules and wouldn't get caught up and get out maneuvered by some of the older heads of the senate. Some people had admired, cause he was a really hard working person. So when Humphrey, when Johnson said he wasn't going to run and Humphrey was going to run for president of course we supported him. After we had committed to support him Fred and Fritz Mondale were his campaign managers for Humphrey. And after we'd committed to support him then Bobby Kennedy got in the race who was our neighbor around the corner, which made it very difficult. Ethel took it harder than Bobby I think but anyway that happened. But we were very loyal to Humphrey, we felt very strongly about him, he was such a wonderful human being, a great leader, national leader."
"So it was a very hectic time and a very sad time because we were very sympathetic against the war and we tried everything, tried to pass a resolution at the Convention and oh just all of that...all of that was, that was a part of all that turmoil. Before the war really took on this ugliness, well, we should have stopped it a long time ago but it was civil rights, it was War on Poverty, it was real positive pro-active kinds of things you could do and I got caught up in that. And I think that was one of the things that helped my work in the Indian community too. I could find ways of making it happen and so it was a wonderful time to be in Congress at that time. It's a totally different beast now."
Americans for Indian Opportunity, AIO, begins in the offices of Democratic chairman Senator Harris
"Of course then he was chairman of the party, a senator. So we had started Americans for Indian Opportunity and he had this big suite of offices, the Democratic party had this big suite of offices and of course we had no money cause we had to pay off Humphrey's and Bobby Kennedy's debt. So Fred was...he was the captain of the Titanic, that was the story. But there was enough empty space in there so he set up, I set up this little desk and office in there and that's where Americans for Indian Opportunity was born in the Watergate Hotel in the Democratic headquarters. So I had a person who worked with me and we just took off and I called all the people to be on the board, who would want to be on the board and this was all after the Bureau of Indian Affairs takeover. Out of my experience in Oklahoma, I'd learned so much and then also having these national hearings on urban Indians that I didn't feel were taken care of and then because there was this great movement in the community, everybody was moving, different levels in different ways but there was all this movement that was happening in the Indian community and I just thought that we could lend another point of view to it and maybe escalate it some. And so that was why we decided coming out of that Oklahoma experience and the urban experience that we should create one and be all inclusive. And then we had lots of people who were striving for federal recognition and things that we learned, so we were wanting to be very well rounded and inclusive and try to carry out a program that way. And that's how we started."
The work of AIO in the ‘70s
"In the ‘60s and the early ‘70s we were, I always call it we were hanging on by our fingernails and in the ‘70s we pulled ourselves over. Then these regional organizations started organizing and making influences and a lot of federal recognition came out of that, a lot of different kinds of things were taking place. We went through, I think our first initial work was with education in New York, urban Indians and Dallas. We did different kinds of work. Then we had, we did forms of evolution, of consciousness I guess. When we would work in a certain field it would open our eyes to another need and we organized a group of lawyers and then NARF organized and they took off, really did great, Native American Rights Fund. And then we started looking at tribal resource... or economic development was the big talk that was the answer, we always have a answer for Indian causes. Economic development was the answer so that the way that the government was going out they would initiate programs in Washington then sell them out here when many times they were culturally inappropriate. So we did research on that, wrote papers on it and showed that the ones that succeeded...then the government, when the programs didn't work the government would say, ‘Well, see those Indians can't manage anything.' And so we started looking at the kinds of programs and well we found that would succeed were like in Washington State where they were doing fisheries management and things where they were culturally related, they just seemed to have much more success than going trying to plop down an industry in the middle of the reservation. We discussed things at board meetings and in the staff and we'd bring people in and we'd talk about it and say, ‘Why are we the poorest people when we own land and we have some resources.' And I said, ‘How much resources do we own.' We couldn't find that out. None of the federal government could sit down and tell you what resources we own, how much or what. So about that time they were starting the Department of Energy and we said, ‘Well, let's...they can't have energy when we know we've got the largest amount of uranium in the country is on Indian reservation so how can they start an Energy Department and not talk to us.' They were managing our resources and we weren't even getting the going prices for them. We found out all kinds of things and that's why the Council of Energy Resources started and that's how the evolution of that changed. Then we got into the environment. One of the ways to protect those resources is have a good environmental policy so the tribes didn't even have, we couldn't even say the word mostly. Most of us could not even spell it and so we decided we should have an Indian policy statement and we got one where that Indians had the right as a government entity to have the right to say what its policies were. Well, they really fought us and particularly in some of the regions but we got Washington to declare it. The tribal governments had to deal with all of this on a tribal basis so they were messing with this. We still had many of our population who were still internalized colonialization. They had not gotten rid of their colonial mentality and that everything that, they didn't feel totally free of it. They had been victimized so long that they, it was hard. So we found that tribes were having a lot of internal problems and we were looking at those internal problems, we worked a lot with Reuben Snake and the Winnebagos and looking at problems. We decided we wanted to look at what was creating...and what we found were cultural values rubbing up against the way our governments were set up and so we saw these issues and we started working on those. We worked a great deal in tribal governance but nobody was ready to hear it. Neither was the funding sources, the federal government itself and the tribes because they were into economic development, into nation building but they hadn't gotten to governance and we still haven't quite got there yet. Looking at our own governments, they are obsolete, they were never intended to do what we're doing now and so we're always having to patch on new things to our constitution to make sure that we have some entity to take care of these issues, new issues that were...and very complex issues like environment and so forth. So those were the areas that we worked in for several years. We didn't become a nationwide phenomena at that time so we started looking at leadership. Some of the problems of how we'd become reactionary, that we were so accustomed to the government telling us what we should do that we would just react to it so that we had lost, many of us had lost the skills to be proactive. How do you learn to be proactive if you've been so conditioned after so many years, 500 years to be reactive to what's happening to us, to be proactive. So we decided that we should start a leadership program. So one of the things that we're sharing with these young people is how to use their intuition and their own tribal values and use them in a contemporary way. Don't forget them. And these people that talk about living in two worlds, that's nonsense. Everybody says, ‘Oh, we live in two worlds, we live our traditional life and then we have to live with White people.' You can't leave your values; if you're a real Indian you can't leave your values on the reservation and then come out here. It has to be with you every day. I like to think that I think in Comanche ways, I like to think I treat people in the way Comanche values put it forward, build my relationships and take care of my kinships and do the...treat them in the way that they're supposed to be treated. So that if you leave them, and so many of us are in the cities now that we have to find ways of reconnecting."
Indian values, indigenaity and the Ambassadors Leadership Training Program
"So we all have to think about how do we do this in a contemporary way while we bring our values with us and so I think it doesn't have to change because I think we have so much to offer. The way we communal ownership, the way we view the world, we're interconnected. All these things are...so if we're going to give it up we should just quit and go, all move to town or move someplace and give up our indigenaity or our tribal ways. But I think that they have real value in human life. If we follow those values we would all be better people and I think it's the demand of our younger children who have gone off and well educated and come back and are demanding. They need their language, they need their song, they need their dads to see themselves as a member of that tribe. And so I think that's what's important about indigenaity is how do you live it and maintain it? Culture is not static. I think one of the things that we get tied down is that like we were in the Museum of Natural History with all of the dinosaurs and the distinct animals that were becoming extinct. That's the way that we were viewed and so now here we are, we've turned into be this vibrant community of people while the rest of rural America is going down, here's Indian America is going up. We've gone from the 60s, we've just been on a rise like this and the gaming tribes are just way off the map in development and economic development and the rest of us are all moving along too in different kinds of ways. It's like in the last 30 years we have made such major changes have come into our lives and we, because we have demanded it. Indian people have demanded it and so our lives have changed, we've taken over the control of our governments, we've taken control of our resources and our environment. We're the ones, and our children in the Child Welfare Act and now we in our Ambassadors Program have teamed up with Maoris of all people of New Zealand to talk about how can we talk about this globally, how can we get the Indian world view out because it has great value to social behavior."
Tradition, technology and the conflict management program of AIO
"The beauty of our ancestors was their tenacity. Where would the Comanches have been if they didn't incorporate the Spanish horse? We became lords of the southern plains and because they utilized what they came across and they did it in great aplomb. So the cultures are alive and vigorous and we make adaptations of things. We've had to learn new words to put in our tribal vocabularies. I have a book of my relative's who were part of the code talkers, Comanche code talkers in World War II so they had to improvise, there wasn't words for tank, an army tank or a machine gun and they had to make up words and so it's that ingeniousness of Indian people who can figure out how to survive in the new environment they find themselves in. And so this is capturing that and making it work for you is kind of the essence of what it is we're trying to do with the Ambassadors Program. And one of the things, you talk about using technology, many of the tribes right now are having all these internal struggles, too many internal struggles. So we were trying to look at that and trying to figure out ways, and we had, we were looking at conflict management and Reuben Snake and John Echohawk and others. We would get together and talk about...so Reuben said, ‘Let's just make up our own, let's make up our own conflict management and see if we can find a tribal way to approach this,' that was our philosophy. We accidentally ran onto this mad Greek, this wonderful Greek Dr. Cristofus who, he didn't call it conflict management, he called it issues management and by taking the word conflict out of it, it became, it's an instrument to use to get your issue, work on your issues. Because what we found when we were working with all these different tribes and looking at what was happening internally that we would focus on, not the fringes but the outward manifestations of it. Say like alcohol, instead of looking at the root causes we were looking at the, we were focusing our attention on these things rather than trying to figure out what's creating this problem. And so what Dr. Cristofus and his colleagues had found, a method by using a computer and it was allowing a group to get to consensus. Well, guess what, we are consensus people and we're systems people. So they had this wonderful system, they had developed a computer system to help you, it just escalates the time of allowing you to come to a consensus and it's a way of allowing everybody to contribute and you honor their contribution, you can't bad mouth anybody's contribution. You know how we get sometimes; we get and criticize somebody's contribution. Well, you can't do that in this system. So we adopted it, we Indianized it. We made them sit in circles instead of tables. We had prayers depending on where we are, whose homeland we were in, they would have ceremonies. And he came to recognize that they were just, these non-Indians were reinventing an Indian system by governing by consensus. He borrowed from us and we borrowed from him and we call, what we call an issues and management system. So we were invited to go internationally to Crete this year to show how we use the system to make decisions that allows us to use our Indigenaity, our Indigenous world view in our decision making while using computers and all the high tech knowledge-y aspects of it but we're still bound with our traditional values in the meantime. So this was a great exploration and then we had the first meeting on the internet about the internet. Was it going to be another form of colonialization, would it take us over, we should jump right into it. It took a little longer than I'd hoped for us to get into it but we said, ‘Well, this is the first time we get to say who we are by using the computer. Here we have an opportunity to communicate directly with government, with our attorneys, with the agencies, with other institutions that we need to,' so it's changed our world and then we can communicate internationally as well so it's changed our world. But we can use it for our own, we can do, we can map our own tribal lands out, we can have all of that information that we need, instead of getting it from the Bureau that we can develop our own information database, we can do all kinds of things for ourselves by using this equipment. That's why I say...you don't have to give up your Indianess to do, your Indigenaity to do this. It's just another tool like our ancestors used from time to time to get them, so allowed them to continue as a people and that's what I see all the technology is just as we're using this camera today to record our history and to maintain our identity and making our history a part of American history. We still have Indian studies and we're still marginalized. We're not a part of the real textbook; we just continue to be marginalized. That's what the importance of your work is. So we have to accept, we have to embrace the technology and make it ours not letting it use us and I think we can do a lot better job about that than we have in the past."
The Citizen's Party: LaDonna looks back on her venture in electoral politics
"The Democratic Party seemed not to be able to know what it stood for. All of the things that brought us to it like grandfather, after the Depression, the rehabilitation of the country, the war and all of those things, it seemed to have lost its mission. And so I was asked by these people if I would be interested in being the vice presidential candidate for the Citizen's Party by starting a third party and Fred was out of the senate and was here teaching at the University of New Mexico. And I thought, oh, I'm not sure that I really wanted to do it. And they were pretty persuasive and Fred said, ‘Well, you'll never forgive yourself if you don't do it, why don't you do it,' and so I did. I wasn't running for the vice presidency, it was running to start a third party like the Greens have been successful in doing. It was a fascinating, I would never be a candidate again for anything but I liked the idea of starting the third party and right now, what's happening to us right now, I feel like the Democrats really need some strong leadership. I think they have just kind of let all of their responsibilities go and the President has taken over and again, we need to have some new direction. We have no real cause that we need to get onto. In the ‘30s the Democratic Party was like a religion and it was a social action, people got involved and were doing things so they were helping themselves and helping others, that kind of idea. ‘60s that was the, we felt that way and then in the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s, in that particular time, we felt like we lost...we seemed to be going backward on civil rights. And the reason I use the term Indigenaity is that we need a new vocabulary to describe who we are right now, not only Indian people but the whole Civil Rights Movement, Women's Movement. We've been kind of overrun, the language we used in the ‘60s don't work for us now. People don't understand the terms that we generated during those times. So we need to find a new language and that was what we were trying to do. We were trying to start a third party...and mostly focused on the environment."
Dealing with disappointments and setbacks
"Well, my family always says that I never seem to remember the negative aspects of it. Well, I have...as one of my board members Charlie [Charles Lohah] would say, ‘We've created some Frankensteins in our days.' We've created things that didn't work. I just, I guess as my Comanche way I'd say, ‘well, the time's not right, it wasn't meant to be right now. So I'll put it on the back burner for awhile and then when its time comes it'll be all right so go ahead and do something that you can move with it.' That's the basic philosophy that I run on that sometimes I get disappointed in people and I say, ‘Well, maybe I won't call on them to help or I won't call on them to work with us because they're not dependable or some other reason,' I just put it in a category. ‘All right, this time they're going through a hard time and I've asked too much of them,' so that's the way I manage disappointment if you'd call it that or setbacks. And I've had some real setbacks. We were going to start it way back when, In OIO we were going to start an Indian Peace Corps and that was a total failure but we learned so much from the experience. And again it told you there are certain cultural things, if you don't pay attention to them, whether they're Anglo cultural things or departmental culture. Like the Department of Interior has a culture that it operates under or with internally and if you don't understand that you're not going to be successful in what you're doing. And that's what happened to me. I didn't understand the culture of the Peace Corps directors and the people in it. So we had to let that go. So now I'm kind of revisiting it with the Ambassadors Program as we're doing some, now looking at doing international work."
Passing the mantel to the next generation, American Indian values, the Ambassadors Program and global interactions
"Because everything is global now that we also as Indigenous people have to be a part of that global interaction, that our world, as comfortable as we've been on the reservation and in our little urban dwellings that we have to pay attention either economically or socially or politically, we're involved in it and we've always been a part of it but we just, we haven't...we've been on a survival mode. Now we have the time to be philosophical about looking at who we are and what we have to contribute, our relatives in Latin America, looking to work with them. We developed this wonderful relationship with the MÄori because they were at the same place at the same time we were and it was like magic. They have now taken our Ambassadors Program and now they've started one and within a year's time they're just doing all these things and we're having this wonderful interaction and we're figuring out now how do we work with other Indigenous peoples and let them start their own leadership program rather than being Lady Bountiful going down to Latin America, we're going to solve their problems, that's what's always, that's what's took us so long to get where we are because people were always going to solve our problems for us. It is when we decided we were going to solve our own problems that all of this wonderful things have happened to us. And that was what was so beautiful with the MÄori people, is we were thinking at the same time. We don't think in victimization, we're not victims anymore, we have something to contribute, we want to find a way to contribute it and that's where we are now. And I think that's throughout Indian Country, we have passed the survival stage. Through all the miseries and everything that we got to get here we still have cultural and political autonomy and that's what we have to share, that's one of the things we should share with our other Indigenous peoples. And so that's why we came up with our word we're sharing our Indigenaity."
Current concerns about United States priorities
"It is scary because we would, for instance we would be presumed in our work in Oklahoma and, well, the work in the ‘60s would be terrorists, if the AIM people would be labeled terrorists and thrown off to jail with no rights at all under this administration if we got that Homeland Security bill passed. That's a very scary position and I think if you talk to Indian people they recognize what we did in Iraq was inappropriate. If you look at the people who are serving in the Armed Forces are people of color and that's going to be the ones who serve in this horrible situation we find ourselves in. Just recently the Navajo Code Talkers came out against the war. So I think we need to think about sending messages to our government and to our representatives that this is a war that was absolutely uncalled for. I feel very strongly about that. There are so many questions that come out of this Homeland Security thing and as a person of color and people of color I think we ought to think about it. And those prisoners in Cuba in that Air Force base down there without any rights whatsoever. It just seems totally violation of everything we say we are."
LaDonna's most rewarding work
"Well, I think the work in Oklahoma for the first cause it opened my skills that I...I come to recognize that I had something to contribute. That was probably the first consciousness that I had something major to contribute and then the Ambassadors Program. These young people, ah, I tell you. it's so amazing to watch them. It's just wonderful. As Eddie Tullis said, ‘We feel like our future's in good hands,' when you see them operate."
The legacy she would leave
"That I was a good Comanche woman. I didn't mean to get emotional because I'm really excited. It's not sadness, it's an excitement about what the future, what we can do as Native people. I think it's limitless, I think it's going to take a lot of creative thinking and a lot of collaboration and so we certainly have the minds and the mental and emotional power to do it. I'm still excited about what the possibilities are. I think that's what I would like to leave with people is that I still have that excitement and the possibility of working internationally with other...with our people, our Native people working with other Indigenous people is what keeps me vigorous and gives me my vitality."
The Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times series and accompanying curricula are for the educational programs of tribes, schools and colleges. For usage authorization, to place an order or for further information, call or write Institute for Tribal Government – PA, Portland State University, P.O. Box 751, Portland, Oregon, 97207-0751. Telephone: 503-725-9000. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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