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Ladonna Harris, founder of americans for Indian Opportunity, looks back on her political accomplishments and relationships in Indian Country as she fulfills the next generation’s role as a storyteller.

Sometimes, LaDonna Harris gets lost in a sentence.

The Americans for Indian Opportunity founder and president comes from a long line of storytellers, wizened, long-haired elders who spoke broken English but could use the poetry of their native Comanche language to paint a sunset so beautiful it’d make you cry.

Growing up during the Great Depression in Cotton County, Okla., on her grandparents’ farm 30 miles from Comanche Nation headquarters, LaDonna would stand by her grandfather’s tall, spindly-legged chair and braid yarn into his coarse black hair, pluck his eyebrows while he crooned to her in his native tongue. She got her first chance to tell stories of her own when he pointed at the photographs in the Life magazine spread across his lap. “Granddaughter, tell me about the pictures,” he would ask.

She’s 82 years old, yet can recall the moments like snowflakes frozen in her mind’s eye, unblurred by the passing of time.

Long ago, she learned how to wrap a new concept in the warm blanket of her Comanche values. She learned how to visualize a world where selfies and Snookie co-exist with the sun and stars. The images aren’t a problem.

But the dates, the names, the fruitless search for the perfect word – they trip her up.

So yes, she gets lost. It’s nothing new.

LaDonna Harris PH131211

LaDonna was lost at 25, when she sat beside her husband Fred Harris at the Oklahoma State Senate, clutching her purse next to the youngest senator in the room.

“Freddie and the Indian,” the others called them affectionately. They went to lunches and dinners with the gray-haired senators, accepting advice over white tablecloths and fingerbowls.

Long ago, LaDonna had learned to sit quietly and listen. Like when she sat in the corner of a room full of aunts and grandmothers sifting through the day’s gossip, careful to keep her mouth shut and her hands still as she absorbed the words.

Little LaDonna, a stoic child with dark, quiet eyes and undiagnosed dyslexia, soon developed a knack for reading people. She carried it with her to the senate, where she was the only wife in the room. She poured drinks, emptied ashtrays and played hostess, but she also campaigned for her husband, toured schools, hospitals and mental institutions and even served on committees in his place.

Soon after LaDonna, Fred and their three children moved to Virginia for Fred’s new role as a United States senator, the supportive wife was beginning to dip her own feet into the political pool. In 1965, she founded Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity in an effort to correct the socio-economic issues that plagued her home state, and she worked with President Lyndon B. Johnson to funnel War on Poverty funds to struggling tribes. The esteemed positions were beginning to pile up. 1967: She was the first senator’s wife to testify before a Congressional committee. 1968: Johnson chose LaDonna to serve on a cabinet council dedicated to Native issues. 1970: LaDonna founded Americans for Indian Opportunity.

By 1980, she had established herself as a political figure. That turning point manifested itself when she ran as vice president alongside Barry Commoner in the Citizens Party, an attempt to weld the efforts of several smaller parties and break into the two-party system. But no one was treating her like a candidate.

“They’re treating you like a candidate’s wife,” she remembers her daughter Kathryn saying.

“And you’re acting like it,” Fred said.

“That’s the role I knew,” LaDonna said. “So I accepted it.”

“It’s difficult to realize now how ingrained and institutionalized sexism was in every aspect of life at that point,” Kathryn said. “That’s why it was such a breakthrough for her to have been chosen, but at the same time, it was easy for people to feel patronizing without even being aware of it.”

LaDonna and Commoner ended up receiving 5 percent of the vote.

“5 percent doesn’t sound like much, but it’s hundreds of thousands of people,” Kathryn said. “They got a lot of their messages across, which was the real accomplishment.”

LaDonna remembers the campaign as the best and worst thing she ever did.

“I found my real voice, but it also ended up in a divorce.”

The pressure of the campaign, of LaDonna’s burgeoning political influence, had ripped her from her closest friend and ally.

So, newly single, she went her own way. She had no other choice.

LaDonna Harris PH131211

Quickly, she devoted herself to AIO, traveling the country as a middleman between government agencies and tribes and eventually launching the American Indian Ambassadors Program to empower indigenous and tribal leaders – to teach them how to exercise rights they never knew they had. The goal was to help tribes reform their governments, ditching old constitutions for systems more in line with their values.

“Many people think Moses wrote those (tribal) constitutions, and they’re imprinted in stone somewhere,” she said. “They think we can’t change them and determine our own citizenship. But our system doesn’t fit our culture. We need it to reflect our culture so we can retain our history.”

So much time has passed since she was a candidate’s wife. Cell phones have fallen into the pocket of every man, woman and child. The Internet has spread through the world like a firework in the sky. The Tea Party was born. And tribes continue to struggle for their sovereignty.

When LaDonna thinks about the decades past, she feels a bit lost – lost in the expanding labyrinth of American culture, a maze that seems to leave each generation behind as a new one is born.

She finds her footing in her relationships. As a child, she remembers going into town with her mother, where unfamiliar women would stroke her hair and call her “granddaughter” or “niece.”

They weren’t blood-kin – they were relationship-kin, connections forged by long-past sacrifices.

“I felt like I was related to every Comanche in the world – and I practically am,” LaDonna said. “If we’re not blood-kin we have a relationship-kin. That’s a wonderful feeling. It gives a sense of belonging. I think that’s what’s made me strong.”

Her daughter Laura, 52, and now the executive director of AIO, realized just how connected LaDonna was when she was working at the National Museum of American Indians, tasked with making cold calls to get funding. Most of the people she called she could refer to as “auntie” or “uncle.”

“That really paid off – being related to half of Indian country,” Laura said.

In her career, LaDonna learned that the best way to enact change in an institution is from within, by working with the people who run the machine rather than destroying the mechanism. Like when she met with restaurant owners in Lawton, Okla., using talk and friendships rather than protest to convince them to allow non-whites in their businesses.

When she reminisces, she likes to think she used the power of relationships to bring about racial integration, form political partnerships and foster hope for tribes. To make her feel less lost in a complex world.

“You have to be big enough to see all the relationships, between the people and the animals and the trees. The whole universe. Part of our DNA is stardust. Some tribes say we came from the stars …”

And she knows she is getting lost in a memory again. But this time, it’s OK.



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