LaDonna Harris remembers what Washington, D.C., was like in the 1960s. Tribal leaders had to travel back and forth across town, meeting in different offices, in order to get business done with the federal government.
That was before her office became idea central.
Tribal leaders found a place where they could meet, plan, and then move around the town more efficiently.
Harris says she never planned any of it, she “stumbled upon it, really.” In an early August interview, Harris, an 88-year-old Comanche leader, recalled her start in DC as the wife of a newly-elected senator.
Some of her major successes include championing the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. She helped the Menominee Nation regain federal recognition in 1973. And promoted the idea that “Indian desks” should be created in a variety of cabinet agencies, including the White House.
She did all of this when the odds were stacked against her. It was illegal for a white man to be married to a Native woman in the state of Virginia and Native people were viewed as “the Indian problem” in Washington. She accomplished so much without a college education.
Harris is now the recipient of seven honorary doctorate degrees. She has personal connections to seven sitting presidents. She was the first Native woman to run for vice president. She has been inducted in the Native American Hall of Fame.
Early life from Oklahoma to Washington
Harris grew up in southwestern Oklahoma, in a town called Lawton, during the Great Depression. She married her high-school sweetheart, Fred Harris, who later was elected to the United States Senate from that state. She put him through college and then actively campaigned for his election.
When Senator Harris punched his ticket to Washington, she followed him to the Capitol.
They made immediate headlines because of their “mixed-race marriage.” Harris characterized it as a novelty. Sometimes, folks even affectionately called the duo, “Freddie and the Indian.”
As the wife of a U.S. Senator, Harris spent time with other, “Senate Wives,” including Ethel Kennedy, who was then the wife of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. She fondly remembers Thursday gatherings when the wives would fold cloth bandages for Vietnam soldiers. They also made layettes, sets of clothing and linens, for newborn babies at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
It wasn’t long, however, before Harris felt that she could do more. So she did. She eventually became the first wife of a senator to testify before Congress.
In her testimony, she spoke about the War on Poverty program, specifically urging Congress to continue funding it to benefit tribal communities. Just a year after that, President Johnson chose Harris to serve on a special council for Native issues.
This was just the beginning of a long career in Washington.
Harris as a force
One thing Harris learned about Washington was about the importance of relationships. She remembers confiding in White House contacts during the Nixon administration who helped her. “You make friends,” she said, “and they’ll help you push things along.”
It wasn’t always easy, though. Once, there was a letter-to-the-editor published in the local newspaper where she was criticized for being pregnant in public. She remembers, “feeling so beat up all the time.” But forward, she kept.
The opportunity to help tribes was a constant. One day, delegates from Taos Pueblo sent a request to meet with Senator Harris (something seemingly unusual considering New Mexican constituents wanted to meet with an Oklahoma senator). Harris believes it is because they knew she was Comanche. That was the beginning of a relationship that ultimately resulted in the historic return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo.
“We [the Harris’] made a commitment that day,” she said. “We decided that if we didn’t do anything else in Washington, we would get that land back.”
And they did. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed a bill that allowed Blue Lake to be returned to Taos Pueblo. It was the first time the federal government returned land to a tribe. This had been a long fight, spanning six decades. Blue Lake had been transferred illegally to the National Forest Service and the pueblo pressed for its return because of its sacred nature.
Another way Harris committed herself was through educating non-Native people about the unique role of tribal governments within the federal government system. She created a presentation, Indian 101, that included everything they would need to know.
“We were always viewed as the ‘Indian problem’ in Washington,” she said, “so I thought to educate them.”
The presentation proved successful. Through this work, she advocated phrases like “self-determination” and “government-to-government.” She was then inspired by the Clinton administration to institutionalize the role of tribes in government. Another success included that congressional appropriation bills read, “States, Counties, Municipalities, and Indian Tribes.”
Later, Harris sought to create “Indian desks” throughout various agencies across the executive branch. They deserved a seat at the table, she thought. “Tribes are governments so we need to have access to the White House,” Harris said. One place she started was at the Environmental Protection Agency. She eventually penned the first Indian Policy Statement for the EPA.
Afterwards, Harris continued collaborations with other leaders that led to the creation of several national organizations, many of which still exist today. Some are the National American Indian Housing Council, Council of Energy Resource Tribes and the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development.
Americans for Indian Opportunity
Harris says that of her many successes, the creation of her non-profit organization, Americans for Indian Opportunity is what makes her most proud.
In 1970, she co-founded the organization to draw upon “traditional Indigenous philosophies to foster value-based leadership, inspire stakeholder-driven solutions, and convene visionary leaders to probe contemporary issues and address the challenges of the new century.”
Their organization invented the AIO ambassadors program which aims to provide Indigenous leaders with a values-based leadership training. The ambassadors participate in a two-year program that meets four times, once internationally. Their training culminates in the completion of a community project.
Running the organization also gives her the opportunity to work with her daughter, Laura, who now serves as the president of Americans for Indian Opportunity.
"She comes in, gets groups organized and started,” says Laura Harris. “Then she moves onto the next thing... and never takes any credit."
The organization has graduated some 250 alumni, representing 150 tribes across seven states and seven countries. These leaders serve their communities through philanthropy, business, tribal governance and nonprofit leadership. They have worked across various disciplines including housing, education and natural resource development.
Political advice from a seasoned expert
Harris has another legacy. She was the first Native woman to run for vice president in 1980. She was selected as the nominee for the Citizens Party, the precursor to the Green Party, alongside Barry Commoner. Although the duo wasn’t elected, Harris ran on a platform of addressing environmental issues. She raised issues in that campaign that are relevant today.
While her political campaign was some 40 years ago, she spoke about her views on the political landscape today. She believes every presidential candidate should educate themselves on Indian affairs and then publish a policy statement that reflects their values.
She also said candidates should meet with tribal leaders and encourages them to have at least one Native person on their campaign staff.
Harris is more than pleased with the historic strides made by Native women in the last election, particularly with Indian Country gaining its first two Native congresswomen. Harris recalls being very active in Representative Debra Haaland’s campaign and says she had fun doing while doing it.
“It is one thing to get them elected,” she added. “but we need to get them re-elected.”
Looking towards our next president, Harris is “so pleased with what the Democrats are coming up with.” She cites Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016, and is now “in love with Elizabeth Warren” amongst other candidates. She also likes the ideas from Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Beto O’Rourke.
“Indian Country will be watching in 2020,” she said. That is due, in large part, to the legacy that she created.
Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is the Rowland and Pat Journalism Fellow at Indian Country Today and a reporter-producer. Her email is: firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @aliyahjchavez
Cover photo: Portrait of LaDonna Harris. (Photo by Aliyah Chavez)