LaDonna Harris, Activist (b. 1931)

Founder, President, Americans for Indian Opportunity


Last updated 5/25/2013 at 10:48am

K.B. Schaller

LaDonna Harris, an advisor to U.S. presidents is an amazing woman. Her personal struggles led her to become a passionate advocate for indigenous peoples. She has been called the Rosa Parks and the Coretta Scott King of the Indian Movement.

One of the twentieth century’s most influential Native Americans in politics, Comanche social activist LaDonna Vita Tabbytite Harris was born February 15, 1931 in Temple, Oklahoma on a Comanche allotment to William Crawford who was of European descent, and Lilly Tabbytite.

Her parents separated shortly after her birth and LaDonna was reared in Indian Country during the Great Depression by maternal grandparents John and Wick-kie Tabbytite on a farm near tiny Walters, Oklahoma.

LaDonna’s grandfather was part of the last efforts to resist the United States’ encroachment on Comanche lands and told stories of those times to young LaDonna that no doubt influenced her life’s course as an advocate for indigenous peoples.

She married Fred R. Harris, her high school sweetheart, who would become an Oklahoma senator. Three children, Kathryn, Byron, and Laura were born to them.

Since the 1960s, Harris had contributed to the betterment of lives as an outspoken supporter on matters of interest that affect Native Americans overall, as well as those specific to women, children, and the mentally ill.

Because of her concern for these populations, in 1970, she founded Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO), a global network for the economic, political and cultural rights of indigenous peoples. To date, Harris continues to lead the organization.

She is described on the AIO official website as “a remarkable statesman and national leader who has enriched the lives of thousands”.

As a senator’s wife, LaDonna Harris lived in Washington D.C. during the 1960s and her high-level contacts extended across the thresholds of President Lyndon B. Johnson himself, and First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson.

She became a member of the short-lived Citizens Party in 1980 and although she was nominated as presidential running mate of Barry Commoner, she was replaced on the Ohio ballot by Wretha Hanson.

Although she has worked for world peace, women’s rights and the environment, Harris is best known for legislation for the returning of federal recognition to the Menominee Tribe, the introduction of legislation for land return to Native tribes of Alaska, and to the Taos Pueblo Tribe.

LaDonna Harris also introduced a program to train Native professionals in utilizing tribal traditional values and outlook into their work, while constructing a global nexus of indigenous peoples. Harris’ skills, insight and intelligence have won her a number of appointments by several United States presidents.

President Johnson appointed her to the National Council on Indian Opportunity, while President Nixon chose her to serve on the White House Fellows Commission.

Under President Ford, she served on the U.S. Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year.

President Carter chose Harris as Special Advisor to the Office of Economic Opportunity and she was instrumental in founding a number of other organizations, including the National Indian Business Association; National Indian Housing Council; and the Council for Energy Resources Tribes.

Under the Carter administration, Harris was also appointed to represent the United States on the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO).

In 1994, during the first term of the Clinton administration, Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, the first African American to hold the position, appointed Harris to the Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure.

The seeming unending list of organizations she has lent her services to also include Save the Children; National Museum of the American Indian; the National Urban League; National Senior Citizens Law Center; and the National Institute for Women of Color.

In 2000, Harris published her autobiography, LaDonna Harris: A Comanche Life.

Harris is the subject of the documentary film “LaDonna Harris: Indian 101”, produced and directed by Julianna Brannum. The film reveals Harris’ personal struggles that led her to become a passionate advocate for indigenous peoples. She has been called the Rosa Parks and the Coretta Scott King of the Indian Movement.

K.B. Schaller, Cherokee/Seminole, journalist, novelist, and lives in South Florida. Visit


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