Native American Leadership and the Art of Collaboration
Under colonization, traditional forms of inclusive, consensus-based Native American governance were systematically replaced with Western forms of centralized, top-down leadership. Women, who once held an integral role in the political processes of many tribal nations, were pushed out or marginalized. Then, LaDonna Harris came along. Working with Indian societies to restore self-determination, and working with the federal government to improve the efficacy of tribal sovereignty, Harris has done much to revitalize traditional modes of tribal leadership, including for women. Harris would be the first to deflect credit away from herself, because all her work has been rooted in collaboration and any success she has achieved is because of the kinds of people she has brought together. Her work has been a model for inclusive, participatory leadership. And that model of leadership is what we will be talking about on this podcast edition of Circle for Original Thinking.
In working within and between tribes, and between tribes and the federal government, Harris has effectively collaborated with non-Natives, gaining support for important causes, beginning with her husband, Fred R. Harris, a powerful senator from Oklahoma in the 1960s and 1970s, who was chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the late 60s and a candidate for the presidency in the 1970s. LaDonna Harris went on to recruit many non-Native allies and to mentor them in Indian ways of leadership that are not only effective for Indian causes, but could be effectively utilized in mainstream politics.
Harris first met political scientist and author Stephen Sachs in 1990. Sachs was invited to her home after a political gathering and found her warmth and hospitality so intoxicating that he found it nearly impossible to leave. Reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains from Casablanca, that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship—and also the beginning of a beautiful collaboration on a wide range of issues pertaining to traditional Native American ways of building respectful relationships and its potential application to contemporary political and social issues.
Join us as we explore Native American leadership and the art of collaboration with LaDonna Harris and Stephen Sachs.
“The dictionary definition of leadership is ‘a person who has control over others.’ That’s not right…Leadership is about bringing people together so they can solve problems … then reinforcing their identity so they feel strong enough about themselves so they (the group) can make their own decisions in a collective manner”
~ LaDonna Harris
Glenn Aparicio Parry, PhD, of Basque, Aragon Spanish, and Jewish descent, is the author of Original Politics: Making America Sacred Again (SelectBooks, 2020) and the Nautilus award-winning Original Thinking: A Radical Revisioning of Time, Humanity, and Nature (North Atlantic Books, 2015). Parry is an educator, ecopsychologist, and political philosopher whose passion is to reform thinking and society into a coherent, cohesive, whole. The founder and past president of the SEED Institute, Parry is currently the director of a grass-roots think tank, the Circle for Original Thinking and is debuting this podcast series of the same name in conjunction with Ecology Prime. He has lived in northern New Mexico since 1994. www.originalpolitics.us
Stephen Sachs is an applied philosopher and Professor Emeritus of Political Science, (Indiana University-Perdue University-Indianapolis) who has worked on American Indian and International Indigenous Issues since 1984 as well as other issues of participatory democracy. In 1990 he connected with LaDonna Harris, who became his friend, mentor, thinking partner and collaborator on many of the issues he was working upon, as well as his writing about them. With guidance from Harris as elder and editor/mentor, Sachs was the lead writer and coordinating editor for the book Recreating the Circle: The Renewal of American Indian Self-Determination (University of New Mexico Press, 2011, reprinted in 2020). This work was a holistic consideration of returning Indian Nations to effective sovereignty, self-sufficiency and harmony, which was the forerunner of the new book Honoring the Circle: Ongoing Learning from American Indians on Politics and Society, a collaboration with 12 different writers including Donald Grinde, Bruce Johansen, Sally Roesch Wagner, Betty Booth Donohoe, et al) soon to be released by Waterside Publications. Sachs has also been the first Coordinating Editor and now Senior Editor of the journal Indigenous Policy for 20 years, and has been the Coordinating Editor of the Nonviolent Change journal for 39 years, and he was the Coordinating Editor and Senior Editor of Workplace Democracy for about 20 years.
Sachs received his MA and PhD in Political Science at the University of Chicago. In the 1980s, he began to be pulled into certain American Indian spiritual ways and ceremonies. This and other cross-cultural interests led to his meeting with Harris and their continuing collaboration.
LaDonna Harris has been a catalyst in the development of Indian affairs for the past five decades. Her career began in her native state of Oklahoma, where in 1965, she brought together over 500 Native Americans from across the state to address the salient issues in their communities. Out of that seminal meeting, Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity (OIO) was formed and Harris was elected president along with 41 directors that read like a roll call of Oklahoma tribes.
In the Johnson administration of the 1960s, Harris, working sometimes with her husband Senator Fred Harris, and also with a group of American Indian leaders, many of them women, became a prominent presence on the national political scene. In 1968, she got President Johnson to agree to establish the National Council on Indian Opportunity, of which the main purpose was to shift American Indian politics toward representative input from Indian Nations. After Johnson decided not to run for reelection, Harris continued to work successfully with the incoming Nixon administration, partnering with Native leaders such as Ada Deer (Menominee), Pat Locke (Yankton Sioux), and Alma Patterson (Tuscarora), among many others. She and her partners succeeded in keeping Indian issues on the national political agenda from the 1960s to the 1990s. Among a long list of accomplishments, they succeeded in returning Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo people, formed the Council of Energy Resources Tribes (CERT) to empower tribal nations to take control of their energy resources, and worked with the EPA to give input to Native nations in helping establish their own environmental policies. The key factor in Harris’ success has always been her ability to bring together the right people and representatives from virtually all positions to talk through any given issue, help the parties understand each other’s concerns, and reach consensus on a policy proposal. Her most overarching accomplishment may have been her concerted effort to develop true government to government relations between the tribes and federal, state, and local governments and agencies. Although much work remains to be done, Harris efforts have had an undeniably lasting impact. Nearly every initiative that has improved relations between Indian nations and the federal government since 1968 was previously advocated by Harris. In 1979, Ladies Home Journal named Harris as both Woman of the Year and Woman of the Decade, heralding her leadership and activism for overcoming inequalities imposed upon Native peoples.
Since leaving Washington in the 1990s and moving to New Mexico, Harris main work has been with Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO), an organization she founded in the 1970s. While she remains president of AIO, her daughter Laura Harris took over the position of Executive Director nearly twenty years ago, carrying on their mission to advance the cultural, political, and economic rights of Indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.
Traditional native flute music by Orlando Secatero from Pathways CD.
Liberty song by Ron Crowder, Jim Casey and Danny Casey
Feature image photo credit: Jackson David via Pixabay