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Remembering Sargent Shriver in Indian Country

With the passing of my dear friend Sargent Shriver let us not forget his many contributions to Indian nations. He was a mentor with whom I had the great privilege of working on many a good project. Over the years, we worked together on issues of poverty, Indian affairs and women’s equality. I’m afraid few remember his work to improve the well-being of Native American communities.

Sarge Shriver was best known as the founding Director of the Peace Corps appointed by President Kennedy. More notably, President Johnson appointed Shriver as the Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) where he became the architect of the War on Poverty (WoP). This “War” declared by President Johnson in 1964, consisted of many effective federal programs aimed at providing economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities. Programs initiated at that time included VISTA, the Job Corps, Upward Bound, and Headstart.

The way in which Shriver structured the many community development programs established through the WoP had a profound affect on Indian Country, providing, for the first time, a platform from which new tribal leaders and Indian activists could evolve. These anti-poverty programs actually enabled a whole generation of national Native American leaders to effectively navigate the federal system. Through Sarge Shriver’s innovative guidelines, Native Americans were appointed to leadership positions, practically for the first time, leading WoP programs, organizing communities and reaching out and meeting with peers around the country. National leaders emerged and because of their joint work with the WoP, they began collaborating on a host of other issues affecting Native Americans. These leaders included Ada Deer, Joe DeLaCruz, Peter MacDonald, Phillip Martin, Wendell Chino and Bernie Whitebear.

Sarge and I first met soon after I came to Washington as a young Senator’s wife, through our neighbors, Ethel and Bobby Kennedy. Sarge, of course, was married to Bobby’s sister, Eunice Kennedy. At social events, I had the chance to discuss Native American involvement in the Office of Economic Opportunity and the War on Poverty with Sarge. While Shriver had ensured reservation tribes were included in the programs, non-reservation tribes were excluded—small tribes in California and tribes divided by the allotment act, including all the tribes in Oklahoma. Together, we arranged for Sarge to visit Indian communities in Oklahoma to investigate and repair this gap, eventually expanding the number of Native Americans eligible for economic development initiatives.

Shriver’s visit took place during a pivotal moment for the progress of Indian affairs in Oklahoma. The 1960’s marked the creation of the first state-wide Indian organization, Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity (OIO) with funding from WoP programming. Although many don’t remember, prior to the War on Poverty period, the Department of Interior appointed tribal leaders for the tribes that were forcibly removed to Oklahoma from the south and eastern regions of the U.S. As a direct result of tribal leader participation in the WoP and the awareness raised by Shriver’s visit, we were able to dismantle this paternalistic policy.

Because Shriver changed the WoP eligibility criteria to include non-Reservation tribes, small tribes and urban Indians, a new consciousness was born throughout the federal government regarding how tribes fit into the federal system. Not since Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Indian Reorganization Act had such quick and positive changes taken place across federal departments and agencies. The War on Poverty marked the beginning of the end for the colonial stranglehold the Department of the Interior maintained over Native peoples in the United States.

Sargent Shriver created the first “Indian Desk” in the federal government. Although I had been appointed by President Johnson to the Indian Opportunities Council, I only held an advisory role as a Presidential appointee with a finite tenure. Shriver institutionalized government-to-government (a phrase we hadn’t yet coined) by establishing a permanent position within the Office of Economic Opportunity. It wouldn’t be until nearly two decades later that we were able to institutionalize government-to-government relations throughout the federal government.

Sarge added my name to a list of “experts” to testify before Congress, making me the first wife of a U.S. Senator to give testimony to a Congressional committee. I will never forget the powerful words he wrote to me the next day, “LaDonna, you have made the House a home for the poor.” He opened the door for me and my colleagues across Indian country. Sarge opened a door, carved out a pathway and then created the structure that allowed us to take up leadership positions and become activists for our own communities.

Sargent Shriver’s contributions remain strong in Indian country. Even though, the Nixon Administration tried to do away with the War on Poverty Programs, two still remain: Headstart and the Administration for Native Americans.

As a strong advocate for Native peoples, Sargent Shriver had a significant impact on modern federal/tribal relations—an impact that might not be included in history books but an influence that should be remembered and appreciated. As the Shriver kids carry on their mother and father’s legacy, I know they are glad their father is recognized for his many years of public service and how a small piece of that legacy has had a long lasting impact. My generation owes Sarge Shriver. I hope this generation remembers.

LaDonna Harris is a citizen of the Comanche Nation and founding president of Americans for Indian Opportunity.