Kathryn Jones Harrison

One of the most influential, respected, creative, and tireless tribal leaders in Oregon history, Kathryn Harrison was born in 1924 in Corvallis; her mother, Ella, was of the Eyak people of Alaska and her father, Henry, was of the Mollala people of Oregon—a tribe legendarily established near Mount Hood by Coyote the Trickster in ancient time. Orphaned by a flu epidemic at age ten, she survived a brutal foster home for four years before escaping to Salem’s Chemewa Indian School, where her father had once been valedictorian. She graduated in 1942 and “impulsively married a classmate,” as she says; over the next thirty years she had ten children and endured terrible poverty, constant moving as migrant laborers following crops throughout the West, and an alcoholic husband.

But Kathryn Harrison was and is irrepressible. By the time she was fifty, she had graduated from Lane Community College’s nursing program, and found work at Lincoln City Hospital, on the coast. There she reconnected with friends and relations among the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz, and was elected to the tribal council. It was here that Kathryn found her life’s work. The 1954 Western Oregon Indian Termination Act had ended the tribal status of the 61 recognized tribes in the state; while most First Peoples here received some small token payment in exchange for title to their ancestral lands, the loss of federal status also meant the loss of health care, educational services, and employment opportunities. In Kathryn’s family, for example, each member received $35 for the loss of land their ancestors had lived and worked on for many centuries; land never legally sold, the First Peoples considering ostensible ownership of holy creation a patently silly idea. Many among the First People in Oregon understood that a secure and bright future for their heirs and tribes lay in restoration of federal recognition, and in Oregon no leader fought as hard, as deftly, and as tirelessly as Kathryn Harrison. In 1976 she and two of her children testified before Congress, and in 1977 the Siletz were restored to federally recognized status. Kathryn then returned to her father’s tribal home at Grand Ronde and worked to restore tribal land, legal status, and health care there; working closely with Mark O. Hatfield and Les AuCoin, she saw the Reservation Restoration Act passed in 1988. In 1995 she helped establish both the Spirit Mountain Casino and the Spirit Mountain Community Fund, a charitable foundation that has distributed nearly $50 million to nonprofit agencies in Oregon since 1997—among them the University of Portland, where tribal contributions help fuel scholarships for students of the First Peoples and programs educating students and neighbors about the ancient history and proud people who have lived in the University’s home for many thousands of years.

Harrison, elected to the Grande Ronde tribal council continuously from 1984 through 2001 (she never lost an election), also served as chairman of the council and trusted and revered counselor for many years; today she still serves as ambassador-at-large for her people, and has been much lauded for her creativity, eloquence, and open spirituality. Among her many honors are awards from American Indian Business Leaders, the Oregon Commission for Women, and the League of Women Voters. She is featured in the book Standing Tall: The Lifeway of Kathryn Jones Harrison (Oregon Historical Society Press), and in the Great Tribal Leaders of  Modern Times film series from Portland State University.

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