Though she received two prestigious awards in less than one week in September, that doesn’t begin to tell the story of Grand Ronde tribal elder Kathryn Harrison.
She’s now 88 years old, but her story begins in 1924, the year she was born—the same year the Indian Citizenship Act became law. She was orphaned at the age of 10 when her parents walked on due to a flu epidemic and was sent to an abusive foster home in Buxton, Oregon, reports Kristine Olson in the Oregon Encyclopedia.
After four years with the foster family, she fled to Chemawa Indian Boarding School in Salem where she was trained to be a servant in white homes. But she knew that wasn’t her path, so she married classmate Frank Harrison and had 10 children. They worked as migrant laborers harvesting crops throughout the west.
Kathryn Harrison had to deal with her husband’s alcoholism and abusiveness and trying to feed her children, often by searching dumpsters for food. Still, she ensured that her children were enrolled as tribal members and maintained contact with her tribe, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
Things took a turn for the worse in 1954 when the Western Oregon Indian Termination Act ended the tribal status of 61 tribes in the state, the encyclopedia says. Two years later, each Harrison family member got a check for $35 from the sale of their land, but losing tribal status meant they no longer had health care or educational services.
Harrison left her husband in 1974 when she was 50 years old. She went on welfare and began taking classes at Lane Community College. She got a job at the Lincoln City Hospital after graduating from the School of Nursing.
“Living near the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indian Reservation, Harrison reconnected with friends and relations there and was elected secretary of the Tribal Council,” Olson says in the encyclopedia. “She joined in the successful effort to regain federal recognition for the tribes, testifying before Congress in 1976. Having succeeded in that effort, she returned to her father’s tribal home at Grand Ronde and worked with other tribal leaders to achieve the official restoration of their tribal status in 1983. Harrison served on the Tribal Council at Grand Ronde for two decades, often in executive leadership roles.”
She worked with Oregon Sen. Mark. O. Hatfield and Rep. Les AuCoin on the 1988 Grand Ronde Reservation Act and played a role in setting up Spirit Mountain Casino in 1995. The casino led to a $45 million nonprofit charitable foundation, the Spirit Mountain Community Fund, which Harrison also worked to establish in 1997.
“Along the way, Harrison received an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from Portland State University. She was honored as Alumna of the Year by Lane Community College and received numerous recognitions from women’s leadership organizations in Oregon,” Olson says. “Now in her mid-eighties, Harrison still serves as Ambassador-at-Large for her tribal government.”
Her most recent awards include being named a History Maker on September 27 by the Oregon Historical Society and receiving the 2012 Betty Roberts Woman in Leadership Award September 28.
“Nobody has shown more grit,” the society’s executive director Kerry Tymchuk said in introducing Harrison. “And today, she continues to show consistency and love in the presence of animosity. Kathryn’s path was clear early in her life, but it took a long time to fulfill.”
“I’m 88 years old,” Harrison told the audience of more than 250 at the History Makers Dinner, “and I’m still trying to make my life pleasing to my parents, my God and my tribe. I’m so honored.”