LaDonna Harris: Indian 101 Documentary

Screening at Jean Cocteau Cinema

Jean Cocteau Cinema
418 Montezuma Avenue, Santa Fe

Donna Harris (standing) with President Carter’s Commission on Mental Health, chaired by First Lady Roslyn Carter. Circa 1982. Official White House photograph.

Earlier this summer, the community-minded folks at Jean Cocteau Cinema, in cooperation with Americans for Indian Opportunity, screened a documentary by Comanche filmmaker Julianna Brannum as a benefit for the Native American Advised Endowment Fund (NAAEF). Established under the auspices of the Santa Fe Community Foundation in 1993 with a gift from the late sculptor Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache), NAAEF makes grants to local Native communities. Recent grantees include the Santa Fe Indian Center, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Tewa Women United, and Honor Our Pueblo Existence (HOPE).

The subject of Brannum’s documentary is the captivating and hugely inspirational LaDonna Harris, a Comanche activist and national stateswoman. She is a natural politician in the best sense of the word—a woman transformed by her circumstances and innate abilities into a highly effective public servant. Acoma Pueblo member Brian D. Vallo, currently a director at the School for Advanced Research, introduced Harris as a “visionary leader” who has “dedicated the majority of her life to engaging individuals, tribes, and especially the federal government, using indigenous methodology,” to increase public awareness of issues of indigeneity in today’s America.

A side note: That the film’s executive director is Johnny Depp made me wonder if he was bent on making amends for his role as Tonto in the 2013 stinker The Lone Ranger. Harris, appreciative of what she saw as his “thoughtful” characterization of Tonto, instigated Depp’s official adoption into the Comanche tribe in 2012, while he was making the film. No matter how you feel about the actor, Indian sidekicks in the movies, and other lore, Depp claims Cherokee blood—a fact that merely serves to illustrate how crisscrossed, looping, and hopelessly multilayered and easily misunderstood our definitions of Native and American identities can be. While Harris may not be “militant enough for some,” to quote Gloria Steinem in the documentary, LaDonna Harris has been getting things done for some five decades.

For many years, Harris, like most American women in the mid-twentieth century, borrowed her identity from her husband, United States Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma, the state where the Comanche girl was raised during the Depression by her maternal grandparents, from whom she gained a strong sense of self. I found myself pondering just when it was that she shifted from “the Senator’s wife,” as Dick Cavett introduced her on his talk show, to LaDonna Harris. Transform she did, emerging from the cocoon of wife and mother into a renowned and respected activist. Indian 101 should be required viewing in a new module in our schools’ curricula. I’d call the course, oh, maybe, “Enough about Europe: American Identity from the First Peoples to Slavery to Today’s Immigrants,” which I expect to get approval from small-town school boards as soon as teachers get paid like basketball players and anesthesiologists.

Harris began her role as a civil-rights principal at President Lyndon Johnson’s request, when he—according to Harris’s press release—“assigned her to educate the executive branch of the U.S. government on the unique role of American Indian tribes and their relationship with the federal government. This course was called ‘Indian 101’ and was taught to members of Congress and the Senate for over thirty-five years.” Harris is perhaps best known, locally at least, as a hero who helped legislate the return of Blue Lake to the people of Taos Pueblo, with key cooperation from Senators George McGovern and Ted Kennedy, Vice-President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon. What is it they say about politicians and bedfellows?

It’s not all good times in Indian 101; Harris recalls seeing storefront signs prohibiting “dogs and Indians.” The film recognizes the atrocities of the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding-school policies and the BIA’s goal of forced assimilation, resulting in what Harris terms “identifying with the oppressor.” What came across most profoundly, from Harris’s presence in the documentary and in real life at the screening, was the empowerment that stems from a feeling that she belonged—to an extended family and to her homeland. In the Q & A period after the film, she called for “one world” and a moving away from an “either/or” mentality, in which we are all members of a world that is tribal, not exclusionary. This is not to say that indigeneity is over: Harris claims the right of Native peoples to self-government. Through it all, she radiates an aura of integrity, kindness, and compassion that is extraordinarily commanding. I found myself deeply moved by her on a very human level. 

The NAAEF has two grant cycles per year. For more information about the Fund, please contact Jane Egan at the Santa Fe Community Foundation.

This review is by Kathryn M Davis and is reprinted here with permission from THE Magazine.

This website uses a variety of cookies, which you consent to if you continue to use this site. You can read our Privacy Policy for details about how these cookies are used, and to grant or withdraw your consent for certain types of cookies.