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LaDonna Harris honored for lifetime political achievement

WASHINGTON – The inauguration of President Barack Obama was not simply a time to recognize a history-making milestone of an African-American politician, but also to honor the many achievements of American Indians on the political stage. One Native politico in particular, LaDonna Harris, received special recognition during Indian inaugural festivities.

At a Jan. 19 gourd dance ceremony, hosted by the American Indian Society of Washington D.C., several friends and relatives of Harris gathered to pay homage to a person that many attendees called “a living legend.”

Wallace Coffey, chairman of the Comanche Nation, was at the event to pay tribute to his “big sister,” as he affectionately referred to Harris.

“LaDonna has devoted her entire life to service of Indian people. When she came up to Washington, she found a void among her Indian nations. … there were Indians here, but they needed to see each other. … she helped make that happen.”

Harris’ name is quite familiar to many knowledgeable of 1960s and 1970s federal politics. Her marriage to Fred R. Harris, a Democratic U.S. Senator from Oklahoma from 1964 to 1973, has been seen by many as helping propel Native issues on the national level.

When her husband ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, he placed what some political observers have deemed an unusually strong emphasis on Indian issues. Many who know the Harris family have said this was due partially to his wife’s Comanche background, and the strong influence she held behind the scenes.

After her husband’s Senate service, Harris herself jumped head first into the political arena. In 1980, she ran unsuccessfully as the vice presidential candidate for the Citizens Party as the running mate of Barry Commoner. Her views then, and now, have largely focused on strengthening federal Indian policy. She has also developed a strong record on issues involving civil rights, environmental protection, the women’s movement and world peace.

Since the 1970s, Harris has presided over the Americans for Indian Opportunity organization, which aims to create culturally appropriate initiatives that enrich the lives of indigenous peoples.

Former Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, also at the gourd dance, said Harris became his “patron saint” after he was elected to Congress.

“She took me under her wing. … she knew the connections to help a fish out of water.” He noted with a smile that Harris was wearing a friendship ring he gave her many years ago in thanks for her help.

Michael Nephew, president of AIS, said at the Jan. 20 American Indian Inaugural Ball that Harris has inspired younger generations to get involved in their communities and to make their voices heard. He noted that she helped put on the first Native inaugural ball in 1969.

“She is the best,” said Nephew, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, before presenting Harris with a plaque commemorating her legacy.

“She means so much to so many.”

After the gourd dance ceremony, Harris sat down for an interview with Indian Country Today on her past achievements and her current views on contemporary politics:

Indian Country Today: You look great! How do you feel?

LaDonna Harris: It’s particularly wonderful to be honored by this group. I was one of the conveners organizing the first Indian ball, and it’s nice to see that it was so successful that it continues on all these years later.

ICT: Forty years!

Harris: Yes (laughs). It doesn’t really feel like 40 years.

ICT: What do you think about the inauguration of President Obama?

Harris: It’s so exhilarating. We need change; the world is changing. … He’s a person of mixed heritage, and with his background, I really feel identification with him.

ICT: How do you view the historic nature of this event?

Harris: I’ve been involved in the civil rights movement since I was a young adult – what happened here, we’ve gone through massive change since the 60s through to this point. … It is wonderful and amazing.

ICT: Do you think the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will make progress under Obama?

Harris: I think it will. You know, I’ve asked him about it. He said he’ll look into it, and to be sure to remind him of it. If the economy wasn’t so bad, we could probably get more of these kinds of things done more quickly. He’s got to focus on the economy first, so we all don’t go down the drain.

ICT: How do you think the Native officials on Obama’s transition team have done at getting Indian issues on the plate?

Harris: Well, they’re my friends; but I think we have to be stronger. We have to push. I don’t care if he believes in us – it’s the people around him, we’ve got to push. We should have had an Indian head of a department in the Cabinet level. … We don’t need to just be focused on the Department of the Interior. … There’s so much we have to contribute because of our cultural background.

ICT: Why is it difficult to be stronger?

Harris: Maybe they don’t see it the same way I do, but you have to know how the system works – be in it every minute. It’s a very hard process, and if you don’t get into the top-level echelon, you will be pushed out. We as Indian people, it’s hard for others to understand us. It’s such a hard thing. I’ve spent my whole adult life educating people. And we’re still having to re-educate.

ICT: Many Native leaders are hopeful for change under President Obama – are you at all hesitant?

Harris: No, I’m hopeful. I believe that if anybody can help change things, he can. I could have been for Hillary [Clinton], but I went for him. It’s because he looks at things differently. He’s got an open mind. … Still, there’s a lot of the old boy network around. He needs some of their expertise, but he has to get out of the box.

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