Since her Depression-era childhood in an Oklahoma dust bowl farm town, LaDonna Harris has been a crusader devoting her life to building coalitions that create change.
“My life’s work has been taking traditional Indian values and making them work in contemporary society. It’s part of my Comanche upbringing that the more privileged you are, the more you should give back,” says the President of Americans for Indian Opportunity and a consistent and ardent advocate on behalf of tribal America.
As a result of her persistence to overcome opposition and success in creating positive change, the nationally renowned tribal advocate was honored with this year’s Spirit of the Heard Award by the Heard Museum in Phoenix. In addition to recognizing the recipient’s accolades as an individual and community leader, the award reinforces the mission of the museum itself: to educate the public about the heritage and living arts and cultures of Native peoples.
“This recognition comes from LaDonna Harris’ unparalleled career working for the cause of native peoples on a local, national, and international basis,” said Heard Museum President Dr. Letitia Chambers. “The organization she founded, Americans for Indian Opportunity, has provided leadership training to hundreds of indigenous youth, many of whom are today’s leaders across Indian Country.”
“Harris is a tireless fighter for necessary policy change that serves as a catalyst for American Indian peoples,” added Museum Indian Advisory Committee Chair Patricia Hibbeler. “She’s an inspiration to all Native women not only through her defense of tribal rights…but also through her influence on civil rights and women’s issues.”
Harris is no stranger to giving lectures in front of large audiences. She began her public service as the wife of U.S. Senator Fred Harris and was the first senator’s wife to testify before a Congressional committee in the 1960s. During that time, she founded Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity to find ways to reverse stifling socioeconomic conditions that impacted Indian communities.
“After Fred graduated from law school, we moved back to Oklahoma and recognized that Native kids were dropping out of school at an alarming rate. A group of concerned Comanche parents met in our living room where we formed the first state organization to combat the problem some 50 years ago. Those organizing skills have come in handy over a lifetime.
“A lot of what we do today is reminiscent of the work we did in the early 60s when we were trying to get the Smithsonian to sponsor Indian displays, exchange exhibits with other museums, and recognize the importance of Indian collections and artwork. Our efforts today remind me of earlier days when a bunch of people united and struggled through a lot of tears and frustration before the rewards of success finally appeared.”
Harris has helped to start and build some of today’s leading Indian organizations like the National Indian Business Association, National Tribal Environmental Council, National Indian Housing Council, and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. In the mid-90s, then-Vice President Al Gore recognized her as a leader during a White House Tribal Summit. She has been appointed to Presidential Commissions under four Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.
Since the 1970s, she has presided over Americans for Indian Opportunity, a group that catalyzes and facilitates culturally appropriate initiatives that enrich the lives of indigenous peoples. And even today, she notes: “I’m not totally retired yet, although my daughter Laura now works with me as Executive Director of AIO.”
As a national leader over decades, she has influenced the agendas of several movements—civil rights, environmental, feminist, world peace—and she’s still not done. “A current project is our young ambassadors program where we work with people ages 25-35 and impart to them the knowledge of tribal values, incorporating that ideology into contemporary society. Our program has a global view because we think the whole world needs an infusion of traditional values. Young Indian people are taking on responsibility—like we did in the 60s—to build a network of support they can connect with and call on in a global effort to improve the lives of all indigenous peoples.”
Harris’ award appropriately fits the theme of this year’s Native American Recognition Days: “Celebrating Indian Women of Courage and Vision.”