THROUGHOUT HER LIFE, LADONNA HARRIS (Comanche) has been a stalwart advocate for Native American rights, using a distinctive mix of eloquence and sensibility to effect regional and national policy changes for America’s indigenous populations. Now in her eighties, Harris’ efforts to expand rights for Native people began in the 1960s and continue today. The documentary film LaDonna Harris: Indian 101, a compelling survey of her life and legacy, will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts’ Helen Hardin Media Gallery from Friday, Aug. 21. It was directed by Julianna Brannum (Comanche), a filmmaker and producer based in Austin, whose 2007 documentary The Creek Runs Red offers a frank look at a small Oklahoma town devastated by toxic lead and zinc mining waste. The following year, Brannum co-produced another documentary for PBS, this time about Wounded Knee, the site of the infamous South Dakota siege led by the American Indian Movement (AIM) in 1973. LaDonna Harris: Indian 101 was produced by Johnny Depp, who caught Harris’ attention as the Comanche guide Tonto in The Lone Ranger; she ended up adopting him into the Comanche Nation in a special ceremony in 2012.
Harris told Pasatiempo that Brannum’s film “captures an important, yet little written about, period of U.S. history during which great changes took place for Native Americans and the United States in general. I was right in the middle of the movements for civil and equal rights, and most importantly, the American Indian self-determination movement. I had the unique opportunity to be of influence during this time of upheaval.” The film begins with brief interviews with Harris’ husband, Fred Harris — who says his wife “was no potted plant or shrinking violet” — and Gloria Steinem, who points out that LaDonna Harris, as a Native American and as a woman, was truly “a rare link between Indian Country and Washington.”
In the film, Harris describes her childhood as being fairly harmonious. She was born in 1934 and grew up in rural Cotton County, Oklahoma, raised by her maternal grandparents; both were full-blooded Comanche who spoke their Native language at home. It was this upbringing, Harris says, “in a house that was always full of kids,” that taught her about community. “What it means to be Comanche to me is that you belong to something bigger than yourself.” School was challenging for Harris, who was severely dyslexic. She developed an ability to observe the nuances of people’s behavior and actions. This sensibility “became very valuable” to Harris throughout her career, in which listening and observing were of crucial importance.
From there, the documentary begins to address issues that first sparked Harris’ interest in advocacy. She recalls being teased as a child for being Indian. Citing the 19th- and 20th-century practice of forcibly removing Native American children from their families and placing them in boarding schools, where they were stripped of traditional dress, forced to worship a Christian God, and faced with severe punishment for speaking Native dialects, Harris says, “The goal was not to integrate, but to assimilate.”
Harris and her husband, whom she started dating in high school, seem uniquely well-matched. In 1956, four years after he finished law school, Fred became a Democratic member of the Oklahoma Senate, wherehe served for nearly a decade. Fred, LaDonna, and their three children moved to Washington, D.C. when Fred was elected to the United States Senate in 1964. The following year was something of a turning point for LaDonna. Fred was asked to participate in a study about black and white relations at the Univer-
sity of Oklahoma’s Southwest Center for Human Relations Studies, but he suggested she attend instead. She remembers asking the group about how Indian people fit into a conversation about race, and recalls the response: “[I was told], ‘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.’ ” This difficult interaction ultimately led to LaDonna’s creation of Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity, an organization focused on reversing the socioeconomic conditions of Indian communities.
Fred’s political career offered Harris an opportunity to interface with Washington lawmakers. During gatherings with her husband’s colleagues, Harris acted as hostess, watching and learning how policymakers work. What she noticed was a striking lack of knowledge about Native people. According to Fred, “She was crucial in terms of getting [President] Johnson to establish a cabinet-wide counsel on Indian affairs.” When Native American activist groups like the American Indian Movement (AIM) sprang up in the 1960s, Harris was not surprised, but her own brand of activism was decidedly more soft-spoken. Of AIM, Harris says, “I was as radical as they were, but I had a different style.”
The film mentions a dizzying number of organizations and programs with which Harris was involved. In 1970, she helped Taos Pueblo regain control of Blue Lake, considered sacred by the Pueblo people for centuries. Blue Lake had been appropriated by the United States Government in 1906, but it, along with 48,000 surrounding acres, became the first piece of land to be returned by the government to an indigenous people. Also in 1970, Harris co-founded Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO), and remains its president. The organization’s emphasis is on encouraging communication between disparate cultures, which is accomplished through projects like the American Indian Ambassadors Program. This initiative, started in 1993, sends Native Americans to countries with indigenous populations in order to observe their cultures and governance systems, and build relationships. Throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, Harris continued to rally for increased government awareness of and attention to Native populations. She was instrumental in founding the National Indian Housing Council, the National Tribal Environmental Council, the National Indian Business Association, and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes; the list of Presidential Commissions on which she served include appointments under Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter.
Much like its subject, the film LaDonna Harris: Indian 101 is an intriguing mixture of sensitivity and power. Andrea Hanley of MoCNA praised Harris as “one of the most dedicated and true activists in Indian Country today,” who “has worked decades on issues that support self-determination and the rights of indigenous people around the world.” Today, Harris lives outside of Albuquerque on Santa Ana Pueblo, where she continues her advocacy on behalf of Native American people.
Stills from LaDonna Harris: Indian 101: Harris is named “Outstanding Indian of the Year” in 1965, courtesy University of New Mexico; top, LaDonna and Fred Harris, courtesy University of Oklahoma; opposite page, Harris today, courtesy Anthony Thosh Collins