Soft-spo­ken rad­i­cal

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LaDonna Har­ris

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

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