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LaDonna Harris: A Comanche Life

LaDonna Harris: A Comanche Life

by LaDonna Harris, H. Henrietta Stockel (Editor)

This book is the unforgettable story of a Comanche woman who has become one of the most influential, inspired, and determined Native Americans in politics. LaDonna Harris was born on a Comanche allotment in southern Oklahoma in the 1930s. From her earliest years, she was immersed in a world of resistance, reform, and political action. As the wife of Senator Fred R


This book is the unforgettable story of a Comanche woman who has become one of the most influential, inspired, and determined Native Americans in politics. LaDonna Harris was born on a Comanche allotment in southern Oklahoma in the 1930s. From her earliest years, she was immersed in a world of resistance, reform, and political action. As the wife of Senator Fred R. Harris, LaDonna was actively involved in political advising, campaigning, and networking.

Not content to remain in the background, LaDonna became a well-known political figure in her own right, serving on the National Indian Opportunities Council as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s appointee and working beside such notable political figures as Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy, and Sargent Shriver. In 1980 she became the vice-presidential nominee for the environmentalist Citizen’s Party. Her story provides a witty and valuable American Indian insider’s view of modern national political scenes.

Editorial Reviews


"This brief, unpretentious autobiography provides a rare insider's glimpse into Native American culture and politics."—Booklist
Sunday Oklahoman

"Harris is considered one the country’s foremost American Indian female activists. . . . She relates many interesting stories of trials and tribulations along the campaign trails and the years spent in Washington, D.C. . . . This is a moving personal story with valuable insights into Comanche life and values, both in the traditional and modern sense."—Sunday Oklahoman
West Texas Historical Association Newsletter

"This well-conceived and thoughtfully constructed work offers great insight into both the public career and private experiences of the most influential Native American women in contemporary society. Authored in a rich, conversational style, LaDonna Harris: A Comanche Life provides for the reader a colorful account of some of the more memorable moments of Harris’s very memorable life.”—West Texas Historical Association Newsletter
Wilma Mankiller

"This inspirational book chronicles LaDonna’s rich life of laughter, energy, spirit, intellect, and organizing. She is always weaving together ideas, people, and resources to make things happen. She has had a significant impact on Native American policy in the U.S."—Wilma Mankiller, author and former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation
Troy Johnson

"This is a major contribution to the role of American Indian women in the political arena. Almost nothing has been written in this area. The subject matter is extremely important in understanding the expanding role of women in tribal and national issues."—Troy Johnson, coeditor of Red Power: The American Indians’ Fight for Freedom

"LaDonna Harris is an American original, Oklahoman and Comanche. . . . Now, Harris describes . . . [her] heritage and her contemporary leadership roles. Stockel . . . has edited Harris's story unobtrusively; it is Harris who speaks. . . . Harris is a model for everyone. Her book is a must read for those with interests in ethnic, women, and family histories, and for political activists as well. . . . All levels."—Choice
Born into a Comanche family living on an allotment farm in southwestern Oklahoma, LaDonna Harris, who "filters everything through Comanche values," has become an increasingly influential and effective activist for Native American opportunity and advancement. In this smoothly edited and well-annotated little book, Harris tells the absorbing story of her life as she grew from a stoic, solitary school girl into the activist wife of an Oklahoma senator and the founder of Americans for Indian Opportunity, now based in New Mexico. Along the way, she learned the strategies necessary to help her husband in his campaigns, to testify before the Senate and even to run for vice president herself. LaDonna Harris inspires and amazes with her determination, her drive and her consistent adherence to her values through difficult years. Her story is important. KLIATT Codes: JSA—Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Univ. of Nebraska Press, 144p. notes. index., Ages 12 to adult.
—Patricia Moore
Born on a Comanche allotment in southern Oklahoma in the 1930s, Harris has been active politically all her adult life. She was the wife of Senator Fred R. Harris, served in Lyndon Johnson's administration, and was the vice-presidential candidate for the environmentalist/Citizen's Party. Stockel has written several books on Indian women. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

UNP - Nebraska
Publication date:
American Indian Lives Series
Product dimensions:
6.29(w) x 8.29(h) x 0.85(d)

Read an Excerpt

LaDonna Harris: A Comanche Life

By LaDonna Harris

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

University of Nebraska Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-7360-6

Chapter One


I grew up surrounded by strong women.

The Tabbytite family farm in rural Walters, Oklahoma, was a good example
of what U.S. senator Henry Laurens Dawes envisioned in the 1870s when the
General Allotment Act that he sponsored began to take shape in Congress.
Through the Choctaw treaty of 1805, the government had begun the practice of
reserving lands for certain Indian groups, but it wasn't until the mid-nineteenth
century that members of Congress started debating seriously about extending
the treaty provisions to all tribes. By 1874 Secretary of the Interior Columbus
Delano had urged the adoption of homestead legislation for American Indians,
and in 1877 his successor, Carl Schurz, recommended land allotments to heads
of families on all reservations. In 1885 and 1886 President Grover Cleveland
endorsed allotments in his annual message to Congress; he signed the legislation
that became known as the Dawes Act the following year (8 February 1887).
Among the primary provisions of the Dawes Act were the following four
stipulations: 1) each family head would receive 160 acres; 80 acres were to be
given to each single person over the age of eighteen and to each orphan under
eighteen; and 40 acres were tobe given to all other single persons under the age
of eighteen; 2) the land could not be "alienated" (sold) or "encumbered" (no liens
could be placed on it) for twenty-five years; 3) Indian peoples had four years to
make their selection of land, otherwise government officials would make the
selection for them; and 4) citizenship would be granted to the allottees and to
any other Native Americans who had adopted the white man's ways.

Each individual in a family, regardless of age, was allotted land. When the
time came for LaDonna Harris's grandparents to select land allotments in the
late 1800s, John (which was not his Comanche first name but one that was given
to him by the U.S. government for their rolls) and Wick-kie Tabbytite chose
parcels of farmland that were across the road from one another. Not all their
relatives made a similar choice, however.

* * *

Great-grandmother and others stayed right where they were, close to
the Wichita Mountains. They didn't want to leave all that mountain
medicine. A new outbreak of smallpox occurred at the time of the
allotment, so the Comanche population decreased due to death, and
that affected the number of allotments. It was interesting that the disease
would occur at that particular time, but we also had an influx of people
coming into the West. They brought their ailments with them. Our
family went to Walters rather than stay nearer to Lawton. Once we
came to Walters we prospered. We had the best of all worlds the farm
and the creeks.

* * *

The Tabbytites (the surname means "the sun rays coming through the clouds"
in Comanche) built their farm and reared their children-Frank, Clinton, and
Lily-on Mrs. Tabbytite's allotment. Between 1900 and the middle 1930s, many
children, grandchildren, cousins, and other relatives filled those 160 acres with
running feet and happy laughter. Quite visible among them at any time was
Lily Tabbytite's daughter, LaDonna.

* * *

The creek went down into Cache Creek and that's where Uncle Frank
lived. When we'd go over there to visit my cousins, we'd have to cross
where poor white people lived. Grandmother would cluck her tongue
about how they didn't have yards and how they swept their trash out
with stick brooms. She'd comment how the little white kids always had
runny noses. Sure, we'd get dirty during the day, but we were never dirty
dirty because we always had to bathe. We cleaned up and washed up
before every meal, and we had certain standards that were not kept up
by most of our neighbors. I grew up surrounded by strong women. My
great-grandmother's first husband was a Mexican captive and became a
Comanche. I never knew anything about him in particular-she had
about six or seven husbands. I remember her sitting with her cane,
the empress of all her domain. Every man, woman, and child in our
family respected that. It was the same with my grandmother, too,
who assumed the same role. Both of them were matriarchs, great-grandmother
and then grandmother. They were my role models. They
assumed the responsibility of keeping the family together.

* * *

One of the tried-and-true methods of solidifying the family was for all the
relatives to get together on holidays, much as every other family did. However,
the Tabbytite family was somewhat larger than most, given the Comanche
cultural characteristic of extended families. Visits together weren't limited to
holidays either, as LaDonna describes.

* * *

We never had a Christmas without going to great-grandmother's house.
It made me close to all my great-aunts and great-uncles and all my
cousins, who were like brothers and sisters. In the summer they all came
to my grandmother's house and stayed with us-numbers of children.
When my great-grandmother died, everybody came to grandmother's
house, and she was the one who helped everybody. My grandmother
was the one who kept the graves clean, and I would go with her. I would
do some of the things that were recognized as the matriarch's role. I
was always so proud to be with her. Going along with her would honor
me-rub off-and the fact that I was with her and doing those things
meant that she recognized something in me. To this day, people come
up to me and cry. They remember my grandmother, and it ties me to
them. They think of me as the legacy of my grandmother, and they hold
me and cry.

Both grandparents had some memories of prereservation times.
Grandmother was a child then and grew up under the tutelage of
Quanah Parker. Grandfather was born in the mountains around El
Paso and had not been conditioned in what I call "colonial mentality."
He wasn't submissive to authority in his heart and in his spirit. He had
that spirit about him and although focused much on the old ways, he
was still a contemporary man even though he didn't speak English. And
Grandmother was a very contemporary woman in all aspects. She also
believed in the old ways but knew its time had passed. I think Indians
in general have shown great tenacity for that kind of change. Each of
my grandparents had a touch of Indian boarding school but neither one
of them followed set patterns. Papa [LaDonna's grandfather] ran away
and Grandmother had to leave because of illness in her family; she had
to take care of her uncle. Before she left, she had a taste of the colonial
mentality, didn't get all of it, and wasn't brainwashed. They were still
free spirits, but the next generation became total victims.


One story my grandmother told was about little people, like goblins,
who had bows and arrows and had some effect on us. We were related to
them. She would never go into detail about it and I never knew enough
to ask Grandfather if we had a creation story-how we came to be-and
so on. I think the little people must have brought us to that place up
north where we all separated out-the Utes, the Paiutes, the Shoshones,
and us. You can envision that it was a big settlement and we weren't as
nomadic, but once we drifted here, we became the Plains people. The
way the elders told it, I got the impression that it took much longer
in time than the historians indicated. I know that some of the people
who came here were known as the Antelope Eaters [the Quahadas] and
some were the Root Eaters [the Yamparikas]. My grandmother is from
the Antelope Eaters and my grandfather is from the Root Eaters. There
were a few other bands but I am not as familiar with the rest of them as I
am with my own two bands. However, I know I am a direct descendant
of Ten Bears.


In the late 1870s the indiscriminate slaughter of buffaloes by newcomers to
Comanche country brought to a boiling point a furious resentment among
the natives. In the months of December and January 1877-78, more than one
thousand hides were taken on the Texas range. Buffalo hunters in the region
believed they were performing a public service by removing the animals to
allow cattle grazing. Their position was supported by Gen. Philip H. Sheridan,
then in command of the United States Army's Southwestern Department.
Sheridan believed the hunters were heroes and should be rewarded with bronze
medals cast with a dead buffalo on one side and a discouraged Indian on the
other. Said Sheridan, "They are destroying the Indians' commissary and it is
a well-known fact that an Army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great
disadvantage." The general was correct from his point of view, which was
to subdue the Comanches by any means necessary. On the other hand, the
Comanches and their allies-the Cheyennes-were determined to rid their
country of invaders who were killing off their food supply. And so the stage was
set for a confrontation at Adobe Walls, a former trading post built in the 1840s
near what is now Borger, Texas.

In June 1874 twenty-six buffalo hunters were lodged in the abandoned
structure. The men had been working all night to repair a roof beam, and
so they were still awake in the early morning hours when the Comanche and
Cheyenne war party attacked.

* * *

The Root Eaters were among those who fought at Adobe Walls. When
Papa [LaDonna Harris's grandfather] would tell us stories about the
old days, he said he wanted us to know the story of Adobe Walls
because his grandfather, who was a Spanish child when captured by
the Comanches, participated in it. Back when he talked about it, we
didn't know history-any part of it-and we had never heard of Adobe
Walls. Papa told that a Comanche medicine man, Esa-tai, said that he
had medicine that would stop bullets and that the people who believed
in him should follow him to the west to wipe out all the European
white people, and the Spanish. They recruited the Southern Cheyennes
and the Arapahoes, but I can't remember offhand if the Kiowas were
there too. Papa particularly remembered the Cheyennes. Well, they
rode west in high spirits. A lot of the younger men hadn't really had
any war experience and were eager to go because they wanted to prove
themselves. Papa said that when they got to Adobe Walls there was
a mesa-a cliff-that they climbed on horseback. When they looked
down into the valley below, they saw an adobe house that used to be an
old farm. It had been deserted but at that time they saw some wagons and
horses, and then they saw people. They decided to wait until morning
to attack. Papa's grandfather thought they had better get the enemy's
horses first, which was a common Comanche tactic. So, under cover of
darkness he went down into the valley to where the horses were kept.
He got hold of a horse's bridle and tried to cut the reins as long as he
could. As he was crawling in the dark and following the line of the reins
downward, all of a sudden he touched a face on the ground that was
full of monstrous hair. Now, Comanches don't have body hair and don't
have any facial hair to speak of, so it was the most frightening thing. He
hadn't even heard this man breathe or could tell in any way that he was
lying there. Just all of a sudden, he touched this hairy face. At first he
thought it was an animal.

The sleeping buffalo hunter had put the reins of the horse under his
head, knowing that the Comanches were in that area and might want
to steal his horse. When this ancestor of mine got back to the warriors
with the buffalo hunter's horse, he told the men how the people at the
farmhouse were set up and warned them that there was a lot of protection
down there. It was one of the times that he had proved himself. But the
warriors didn't pay any attention to him because they thought he was
being too cautious.

The next morning they all rode up on the mesa again and lined up.
The Cheyenne chief was on horseback next to the medicine man Esa-tai
with his son and he heard a shot, but he thought it was too far away
to worry about. The bullet was from the long-range guns the buffalo
hunters had and it hit an Indian in the leg and knocked him out of
the saddle. The Cheyennes were angry because their man was hit and
said that Esa-tai's medicine didn't work anymore. They left. Then the
Comanches and the other warriors stormed the farmhouse in waves. The
whole intent was to just go forward into battle, but the long-range guns
the buffalo hunters had was just something they weren't accustomed to.
So many of them died that they just turned back, believing that the
medicine man had lied to them. They were so devastated.

That event was so devastating to their psyches because they had
been all worked up and ready to do anything they could. They had
the numbers, and it was the only time in my knowledge that the men
from several tribes got together in a common cause. It was more of a
psychological victory for the buffalo hunters and a psychological defeat
for the warriors. I think it was because they believed so strongly in Esatai's
medicine, and all medicine for that matter. How this medicine man
showed them his medicine could resist bullets, and how he convinced
that large a number of people to go out together when they weren't
accustomed to being with each other-he had to do it in sign language
because they didn't speak each other's languages-is amazing.


The subsequent battle that occurred in Palo Duro Canyon that same year
(September 1874) was a decisive victory for the military in that the Comanches
were again psychologically defeated. Both the Adobe Walls and the Palo
Duro experience have remained in the Tabbytite family's memory. Although no
hostility was obvious as LaDonna related the events to me, she clearly expressed
some emotion.

* * *

The U.S. government could not have controlled us had they not had
experience in the Civil War and learned from all those battles. Gen.
[William Tecumseh] Sherman, who burned down Atlanta, came out
here to figure out what to do about the Comanches because the government
had been so unsuccessful in capturing the Plains Indians. One of
his favorite strategies was slash and burn.

When the military pursued the Comanches, the Indians ran down
into Palo Duro Canyon and hid. This was a tactic they used for years
against the Spanish and it worked. It worked for a while against the
American military as well because the people would scatter; they had a
prearranged place to meet when the danger was past. If women couldn't
get away with their husbands, they took their children and hid in the
bushes. Then the military gathered up whomever was left-usually older
people, younger children, and women. They planned to take them back
to the military post, but by the time they left the battle area, there would
only be one or two cripples left, or orphaned children, or those who
had gotten hurt in combat. The others knew how to sneak off, and as
they did they stole the military's horses. Comanche women were just
as fleet of foot and good at this as were the men. So, by the time the
military got back to their post they had only a few captives and some

When Sherman came out here, he said, "None of that." He was able
to gather up a big segment of the Quahadas in Palo Duro Canyon by
running their horses off the cliff. Hundreds of horses were piled up
at the bottom. When the military had all the Quahadas where they
wanted them, they burned everything the people had. It wasn't very
much-tents and other possessions. Grandmother was there, as were
her mother and the rest of the family. Sherman took the Quahadas back
to Fort Sill, marched them from Palo Duro Canyon, which is right
near Amarillo. Grandmother said it was miserable. They didn't have
enough food, for one thing. It was the Comanche's Trail of Tears, so
to speak. Very damaging and demoralizing, especially to see the army
kill the horses that way. The horse had become a symbol of bravery and
Comanche spirit. That battle really did break our backs. Then it was
over. We were incarcerated at Fort Sill in 1874.

While they were prisoners, my great-grandfather-my grandfather's
father-would sneak away into Texas and raid. He brought back things
for the tribe to have, to restore some of their losses. My grandmother
would tell the story, very dramatically, and it was so sad to hear her.
She always mentioned relatives who had lost so much. Of course, horses
were their wealth.

My grandson, Sam Fred, is nine years old and we are going to take
him to Adobe Walls and Palo Duro Canyon and tell him the stories. We
must keep the memory alive, keep it going into the future. Sam Fred
was named after the relative who participated in the battle of Adobe
Walls. Ordinarily, we didn't give names of people who died to others,
but it's different now. An elder said, "It's a good thing to remember those
people. We should honor their names and carry them on because they
were great warriors."


Excerpted from LaDonna Harris: A Comanche Life
by LaDonna Harris
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

LaDonna Harris lives in Bernalillo, New Mexico, and currently serves as the president of Americans for Indian Opportunity. H. Henrietta Stockel is the cofounder of the Albuquerque Indian Center and the author of seven books about Native Americans, including Women of the Apache Nation: Voices of Truth.

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