Friday, April 8, 2016

LaDonna Harris, Native American Social Activist

At age 30
LaDonna Harris is a Comanche activist and civil rights leader who founded the first statewide American Indian organization and pushed for federal funding for their programs.

“Traditionally, one became a strong person in order to give back to the community. The community nurtured you while you were becoming strong and once this was achieved, you looked for opportunities to give back to the community." ~ LaDonna Harris

LaDonna Harris grew up on a farm in Walters, Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Besides being a time of great hardship for most Americans, this was also a time of extreme transition for American Indians due to the government's General Allotment Act and urban relocation programs, the main goals of which were to break up Indian tribes so they would be more easily assimilated.

Being American Indian in the 1930s-50s

American Indian tribes had been in a state of unhappy flux for centuries by this point; as early as 1798, the United States Federal Government had been taking over the land of American Indian tribes and breaking it up into individual plots, then selling it.

After a series of allotment policies were passed that were supposed to help Indian people retain some land (while the government continued to break up and hand out most of it to non-Indians), by 1934 the amount of land owned by Indian nations in the U.S. had plunged from 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million.

1910 United States Department of Interior advertisement
offering "Indian Land for Sale." The man in the picture
is a Yankton Sioux named Not Afraid of Pawnee.

But why this system of allotment? American Indians in that time were regarded with suspicion - not shocking in a society that was already oppressing African Americans and women - and their ways of sharing land amongst a tribe were seen as backwards and communist. Also, it was generally held that American Indians owned too much land overall, and it should be opened up to other prospects, including mining and farming.

As for their economic situation, the 1950 census found that the average Native American on a reservation earned $950, the average black person earned $2,000, and the average white person earned almost $4,000 — over four times more than Indians.

This was the social and economic environment into which LaDonna Harris was born on February 26th, 1931.

Growing up in Oklahoma

Raised by her grandparents on their allotment in rural Oklahoma, Ladonna felt that "it was probably the most wonderful thing that happened to me because, they were steeped in their Comanche culture and Comanche values."

Her grandparents had put enough land together to farm the soil, and LaDonna grew up there with her sister while her mother worked. Her grandfather was a medicine man who continued to practice the ways of his old religion while her grandmother, a Comanche, converted to Christianity. Despite their different religious beliefs, LaDonna recalls the respectful way her grandparents treated each other and their harmonious blend of cultures.

In an interview with the Institute for Trail Government in 2004 LaDonna described this environment, and how her grandmother remained the matriarch of the family even after her mother died.

"I had a very strong grandmother and a very wonderful grandfather who would take us to church on Sunday, and we would go in to church and listen to the preacher preach, then we’d come home and papa would sing his peyote songs in the evening as the sun was going down... it was a very rich environment that I grew up in."

LaDonna's grandmother would take her into town and to Comanche events, which LaDonna described as being "a wonderful thing." In that capacity she was able to absorb the values of her grandparents, who believed both in self-determination and that one could never decide what was good for another person, without being that person - that you had to respect another person's values, and not try to impress your own upon them. These were a part of the Comanche values.

Dyslexia and Discrimination

At school, LaDonna struggled with dyslexia. It would remain undiagnosed, but she was well aware that she didn't "learn like other people learn." To get around it and complete the assignments anyway, she would study the teacher and "figure out how to satisfy her" without going through the exact steps that she described.

Besides having to negotiate the communication barrier with her teacher, LaDonna remembers the names her family was called by some of the white kids at her school, or on the way to town - they were called "gut eaters," a reference to tripe (which many people in the United States ate at that time), and other names, and discriminated against by both students and teachers.

At both her school and their church, LaDonna recalled how "you had to give up who you were in order to be educated - it was always either/or, you had to give up who you were in order to be educated, or to be a good person. I think it was all the loving and nurturing that I got that I said, ‘Well, something’s wrong with that."

It was due to these experiences that LaDonna became untrusting of authority, and willing to question situations that didn't make sense.

In high school, LaDonna met Fred Harris, the man she would marry and spend the next three decades with. They formed a great partnership, with the strengths and weaknesses of one complimenting those of the other, and by being willing to learn from each other, and accept each other as they were.

Entry in Politics

When Fred graduated from law school, he ran for and won a Democratic seat with the Oklahoma State Senate, and LaDonna took an active role in his campaigns and his service. She described herself as being very stoic at that time, "the stoic Indian girl," which she recognized was both a stereotype and a defense mechanism she had learned in her youth to protect herself, but she felt that it came in handy during her husband's campaign and term.

LaDonna with Fred Harris, courtesy of the University of Oklahoma
When Fred was elected to the United States Senate in 1964 after serving for eight years as a state senator he would take LaDonna to the Senate floor so she could watch as the members argued, then she would later confer with her husband regarding her observations. Fred had caught on the fact that LaDonna was far more observant when he when it came to listening to people talk, and she was always able to fill him in on aspects of an argument that he had missed.

The two appeared frequently as a team and were accepted as such - remembers LaDonna, "I was the only wife that would go to the State Senate and be around what was going on."

Formation of the IOI

It was during this time that LaDonna founded Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity (IOI), which developed from a meeting between LaDonna and professors at the University of Oklahoma.

The initial of the meeting was to discuss the relationship between black and white members of the community and labor policies, and when LaDonna brought up tensions she was witnessing between American Indians and other populations, she was told, "Indians don't have problems, the Bureau of Indian Affairs takes care of that."

LaDonna snapped out of her "stoic Indian phase" long enough to inform meeting attendees that that was not the case, and following the meeting she began gathering Comanche tribe members and relatives in her living room, and spoke with them about their need as a group to be able to articulate what they needed and wanted, or they would continue to get overlooked.

These meetings in LaDonna's living room were the beginning of the group called Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity. The group that met first in LaDonna's home soon travelled to other towns until they had united the five tribes and the plains people, all of whom had previously been dislocated, and were the first statewide Indian organization in Oklahoma.

Describes LaDonna, "When we started Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity there was no handbook, there wasn’t anything written about how you organize communities. There wasn’t anything written about civil rights that you could take say, ‘Well, let’s get this book out and see how somebody else did it.'"

Though uniting these tribes was a significant accomplishment, it was not without challenges. When working with various leaders, LaDonna took care to be cognizant of the different cultures that existed between tribes and remember that what was good for one tribe was not necessarily good for another.

As LaDonna had believed her whole life, it was important to honor and respect the ways of others and examine issues from each side's perspective - indeed, she saw this as a skill that should be developed among all of them, and she would tell Indian students that having two perspectives (their Indian way of looking at it, and their adopted Western perspective) made them "much wiser than others" who could only see the issue one way.

IOI took on such issues as discrimination in public schools and the alarmingly high dropout rate for Indian high school students. To demonstrate to the teachers how their discriminatory words and behaviors were negatively impacting Indian students, LaDonna and her group invited the teachers to a workshop where they engaged in roleplay of both the negative and positive behaviors.

LaDonna recalled that some teachers were so upset by this that they refused to continue, but those who remained took it to heart and made changes to their attitudes, to be more inclusive of the Indian students from that time on.

Through these means, the IOI was able to increase the rate of Indian student graduation from high school from 8% to over 25%, still a low figure but a significant improvement over the rates they were seeing prior to their involvement.

Other issues addressed by the IOI was the support of Indians in urban environments (having been relocated there through government programs), health and community services in Indian communities, and outreach programs to address the increasing incidence of suicide among American Indians. LaDonna would also testify before Congress to ensure that IOI received funding for these programs.

Outside of the IOI, when her husband was the head of the mental health committee LaDonna supported his work by visiting mental health facilities and reporting back with her point of view. LaDonna states, "It was a time when we were going through those horrible snake-pit days... once you visit a place like that, you will always be committed to improving mental health conditions."

LaDonna visited six state-controlled mental hospitals, all of which were segregated, and with the content of her reports Fred Harris was able to enact legislation that would improve the conditions of mental health facilities across the state. Of all of her accomplishments, this was one that made LaDonna the most proud.

Civil activism and integration

As a senator's wife, LaDonna was also approached by members in the black community who wanted her help confronting segregation in their town of Lawson. Together with her husband and community leaders of all races, LaDonna formed what they called the Honcho Group to target the owners of restaurants and public facilities, and they would invite them to dinner to talk about the issues over a meal.

Regarding this strategy, LaDonna reported, "My God, it worked. We used social pressure from peer groups. We went quietly to them without fanfare and asked them respectfully to integrate their establishments. About ten complied. There were always one or two holdouts."

To put further pressure on those owners who would not agree to integration, LaDonna went to local churches and military leaders to win their support, then told any restaurant owners who were still holding out that they would boycott their restaurant until they agreed to integration. By these methods, LaDonna and a small group of activists ended segregation in the town of Lawson.

Indian 101

In the 1970s, LaDonna continued to use her position as Senator's wife to be active in politics and push through issues of importance to the American Indian community. She served on many committees and advisory boards with members on Congress, teaching them what she would refer to as "Indian 101," by which she would educate them on issues of importance to Indians in America, and on the nuances between the different tribes.

Through this work over the course of 30 years, LaDonna helped return land to several Alaskan Tribes and and the Taos Pueblo Tribe of New Mexico, and guided the Menominee Tribe to federal recognition. She even made a run for Vice-President in 1980 on the ticket of the Environmentalist Citizens Party, though they only secured 5% of the vote.

A strong believer in the notion that Indian youth both benefit and contribute the most when they are able to fold their traditional values into their contemporary (rather than feel like the two worlds must compete), in 1993 Ladonna created the American Indian Ambassadors program. In this two-year fellowship, ambassadors are instructed in tribal values and modes of government, and travel to other countries to observe indigenous governments first-hand and forge international friendships and connections.

In 2003, LaDonna passed the executive leadership of her programs over to her daughter, Laura Harris, though she remains strongly involved. LaDonna has two other children from her marriage to Fred Harris, and two grandsons, to whom she is teaching Comanche.


"We want to maintain ourselves as we are so we can contribute our differences, our particular understanding, to both the national community and the global society."


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