- Powerful Medicine:The Rhetoric of Comanche Activist LaDonna Harris
Beginnings: Paying Respect to Our Tradition
Histories of Native American rhetoric that focus on the strategies of our contemporary leaders and activists are still surprisingly rare. At this point, the majority of our work on American Indian rhetoric has focused on tribally specific oral histories and traditions or the practices of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century figures such as William Apess, Red Jacket, Sarah Winnemuca Hopkins, Zitkala-Ša, and others.1 These studies are absolutely critical to our understanding of Native American rhetorics and the ways in which Native people have dealt with devastating colonial practices and policies. However, the lack of attention to more contemporary figures is of real concern because these leaders and activists have been—and are still—teaching our communities how to move through the processes of decolonization and nation building to more fully exercise our sovereignty. In other words, they have been teaching us how to recover and how to flourish. And they have done so, by and large, without the benefit of graduate courses in Native American studies and postcolonial theory. They have done so by using language, rhetorical practices, to find insight into their own situations. As Robert Warrior (Osage) has pointed out, "Reading critically our own tradition is a matter of respect."2 In that spirit, I have chosen to focus in this article on one person in particular who has devoted her life to advocating for and working with tribal communities—Comanche activist LaDonna Harris. [End Page 63]
Harris is the former wife of Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma, a strong supporter of Indian issues in Congress during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Drawing on her life experiences and identity and values as a Comanche woman, Harris played a critical role in shaping and influencing American Indian policy from "inside" the system during the Red Power era. Importantly, her activism did not end with the end of that era or with the end of her marriage to Fred Harris. Harris's work has continued to the present day, predominantly through Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO), a nonprofit tribal advocacy organization she founded in 1970.
Known for her tremendous personal warmth, powerful charisma and style, and graciousness and charm, LaDonna Harris is loved and respected throughout Indian Country and has certainly received her share of honor outside of Indian Country as well. However, her name is not necessarily as well known as the names of other contemporary Indian activists. The names of Native men like Dennis Banks (Ojibwe), Russell Means (Oglala Sioux), and Leonard Peltier (Ojibwe), for example, are much more familiar. Their activities as leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1960s and 1970s have been well documented by scholars and filmmakers—as they should be. Their demonstrations, takeovers, and marches set against the backdrop of the tumultuous civil rights protests of that era raised the profile of Indian issues and forced the public to acknowledge that the needs and rights of Native peoples could no longer be ignored.
Other Native women are perhaps also better known. Many, many people, Native and non-Native, know Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee) as the first woman to serve as the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Mankiller's focus on nation building not only resulted in many new businesses and a revitalized economy but also in a reinstituted judicial system and district court. Those who follow politics closely probably also remember Ada Deer (Menominee) as the first Native woman in the position of assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Her appointment to the BIA rewarded her hard labor as the force behind the restoration of her tribe, the Menominee Nation. Deer's efforts led to the end of the disastrous termination era for all U.S. tribes. [End Page 64]
However, it is easy to identify as leaders those individuals who served as the public face and voice of larger, well-recognized institutions or movements. LaDonna Harris is different. Her name is not as well known as others because she does not fit neatly within the Western conceptualization of leadership...