Humble Dignity: Tracing the Lifeway of Kathryn Harrison

By Olson, Kristine | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview
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Humble Dignity: Tracing the Lifeway of Kathryn Harrison


Olson, Kristine, Oregon Historical Quarterly


UNTIL I MET KATHRYN HARRISON, all of my experience with Native people was with traditional, reservation-based tribes--the Warm Springs and Umatillas in Oregon and the Navajos, Hopis, and Zunis in Arizona and New Mexico. When the tribal attorney asked me to preside at a repatriation ceremony for the Grand Rondes in 1993, I anticipated ancient reburial rites. Instead, I encountered a political gathering in the state capital in Salem with a crew-cut tribal chair--Mark Mercier--whose business card featured cartoon dinosaurs.

What intrigued me the most, though, was the tribal vice-chair, a diminutive curly-haired grandmother in suburban-mall attire, who held the assembly spellbound as she described, teary-eyed, what her ancestors would have done with each bit of rock and bone that had been unearthed by the Columbia South Shore developers. In her eloquent prayer for the remains, she voiced a powerful blend of Native American and Christian spirituality. Kathryn Harrison reminded me of Vine Deloria, Jr., an elder of the Standing Rock Sioux in South Dakota and the author of Custer Died for Your Sins, who had been trained as a seminarian but was also a preacher of Indian ways. Like him, Kathryn could span cultural divides. I immediately imagined her as a potential reconciler for some of Oregon's Anglo and intertribal rifts.

Kathryn and I grew close over the next decade, while she was tribal chair and I was U.S. Attorney for Oregon. I learned that her hair had been cut short in a traditional gesture of mourning when her oldest son died in 1991. I learned about her childhood and her years at Chemawa Indian School. And I learned about her abusive marriage and her struggles to raise ten children. I also heard her expound on feminist values while mentoring the young girls in the Grand Rondes' "royalty" competition for the "court" at powwows. As I drove her on field trips to visit the places of her past, we often sang along to oldies on the radio. She knew all the lyrics.

As I listened to Kathryn's life story, I became convinced that it demanded a wider telling. She could do for westerners what Vine Deloria had worked toward nationally:

... demythologize how white Americans thought of American Indians. The myths ... whether as romantic symbols of life in harmony with nature or as political bludgeons in fostering guilt--were both shallow. The truth ... was a mix, and only in understanding that mix ... could either side ever fully heal. (1)

Because of her personal history, Kathryn was also in a position to inspire Indian people to find revitalized direction in Native values, "to instill belief in a culture [that] had been shattered by history, and by deliberate government policy" (2) I deplored what I understood of these policies; she lived through them for eight decades. We began weekly taping sessions that I dubbed "Mondays with Kathryn." I would show up in her office on Mondays on my way back from the beach where I had been working on chapters, and she would invariably quip: "I'm not dead yet!" Those sessions would eventually allow me to write Kathryn's biography, Standing Tall.

The story of Kathryn Harrison's life puts a human face on the suffering wrought by twentieth-century U.S. Indian policy. She was born in 1924, the year that Congress passed the American Indian Citizenship Act, which finally conferred on Native people the rights that immigrants and even former slaves enjoyed., Over eight ensuing decades, Kathryn overcame the obstacles placed in her path by both the government and individuals. She not only survived, but she triumphed, eventually leading the Grand Rondes to undreamed-of prosperity and prominence.

To drive this point home in the biography, I looked at the events in Kathryn's life next to the milestones in federal Indian policy. The interwoven motif was stunning, the whiplashes of the strands of vacillating national direction vividly mirrored in the waning and waxing of Kathryn's eighty years.

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