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LaDonna Harris Honored in New York For 'Legacy' as Activist, Working Mother

LaDonna Harris, president of the Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO), on Wednesday received the Working Mother Legacy Award from Working Mother Media during the Multicultural Women’s National Conference in New York City.

In a packed ballroom at the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square, Harris, a Comanche, was lauded for her decades-long statesmanship and service to Native Americans and the country.

Speaking from the podium, Carol Evans, event host and president of Working Mother Media, reeled about Harris’ life achievements – from her work to reinstate federal recognition to the Menominee Tribe to her diplomacy with high-ranking elected officials, including former President Lyndon B. Johnson. 

A movie trailer for the new documentary film about the life and times of Harris played before she took the stage. The film, produced by actor Johnny Depp, is slated for release in the fall. In 2012, Harris adopted Depp into the Comanche Nation.

Following the trailer, Harris, who traveled to New York from her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, received an art piece commissioned in her honor.

Harris, then, spoke of her life growing up in Oklahoma, the values her grandparents instilled in her and the difference between overt and covert racism.

Harris said, historically, racism in the U.S. directed at African Americans was overt whereas racism aimed at Native Americans was covert. That is, she said, where African Americans were ordered to sit in the back of movie theaters Native Americans faced removal and assimilation policies.

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Harris also discussed the importance of identity and values. “Don’t be afraid to use your values,” she said. “No matter where you come from. … It’s important to have your identity.”

The Legacy Award is given each year to “one extraordinary individual for her inspiration, dedication and significant contribution to the support and advancement of women,” according to an event program.

AIO, founded by Harris in 1970 with several Native American activists, works to advance the cultural political and economic rights of indigenous peoples in the U.S. from an indigenous worldview, according to its website.

In 1993, AIO launched its Ambassadors Program as a leadership development initiative for mid-career Native Americans who are interested in improving their communities. Ambassadors include filmmaker Bird N. Runningwater, University of Montana Professor Rosalyn LaPier and Reid Walker, director of the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Before leaving the stage, Harris recognized her children, including her daughter, Laura, who had traveled with her, and stated that the award “is a recognition of the work that needs to be done.”

In attendance included working mothers from a cadre of companies, including Wal-Mart, General Electric, Kraft and more.

Also in the audience was photographer Matika Wilbur of Project 562. Wilbur was invited to speak at the conference on Thursday about her work in Indian country and her photography. The conference ended on July 17.