Santa Fean August September 2016 | Digital Edition

Page 40

LaDonna Harris the art of negotiation by Anne Maclachlan

LaDonna Vita Tabbytite Harris (Comanche) has both seen and made diplomatic history during her lifetime’s dedication to the betterment of Indigenous peoples around the world. From negotiating a return of land and water to the Taos Pueblo to establishing a multicultural, global Indigenous Ambassadors Program, Ms. Harris has continued the quest for intercultural understanding and is passing her knowledge to upcoming generations. Harris has worked with every sitting United Sates president since Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, when she lived in Washington, DC, with her then-husband Senator Fred Harris. She became a de facto spokesperson for Indian affairs, eventually producing the somewhat tongue-incheek “Indian 101” seminar for Capitol Hill denizens, who seemed to be aware of their Native constituents only in terms of their depictions in current films. “There was a general lack of knowledge,” says Harris, noting that for a time, the Smithsonian’s exhibit about Native Americans resided in the facility’s basement—along with the one filled with extinct animals. Thus, says Harris, a subsequent modern Native art exhibit at the Smithsonian generated some confusion among the public as to whether Indians were contemporary people. When the art show opened, “Everyone was dismayed because it wasn’t Indians on horseback with war bonnets; it was too modern. It was contemporary, and they [the mainstream] didn’t know how to deal with it..”

“The states were counting us, but not protecting us.” —LaDonna Harris “The general public has no idea who we are because of the way we are taught American history,” explains Harris “We don’t study American history; we study Europeans coming to the Americas.” As a child, Harris recalls, she felt marginalized by the mainstream, transitioning from a house full of relatives to public school; she remembers her early school readers—the archetypical ones with Dick, Jane, and Spot, and what she came to think of as the “Dick and Jane America”—as alienating. “The little Dick and Jane book said, ‘This is what America is.’” It was the beginning of Harris’s feeling “different.” Not much of this approach has changed, she continues. When speaking to a little girl recently in Oklahoma about her classroom experience, the child responded, “Indians can’t learn. We can’t make straight As.” Harris continues, “So somehow, that [sense of being a part of something] gets taken away from them in the educational process.” She believes that this outsider feeling is what’s wrong with the New Mexico school system. When Harris reached adulthood and became involved in Washington politics, her reputation grew, along with her network, and she made allies among such notables as Ada Deer (Menomonee), Robert L. Bennett (Oneida) and Bobbie Greene Kilberg. Together, they overcame various government objections, turning legal matters into issues of cultural and religious freedom. Deer spearheaded the successful efforts to reinstate the Menomonee people as a tribe. Eventually, Harris’s quiet activism led to the return of land and water to Taos Pueblo, a 64-year struggle, on December 15, 1970. Harris continued to advocate for tribes’ rights to their natural resources. During the establishment of the energy department under Nixon’s presidency, Harris pointed out, “You can’t have an energy department without the consideration of the tribes being the single largest private owners of the resources—that they have to be a part of the discussion.” In 1998, Isleta vs. Albuquerque

Wakeah Vigil (Comanche)

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