In Memoriam: Grand Ronde Tribal Councilwoman Kathryn Harrison

GRAND RONDE, OR – The Confederate Tribes of Grande Ronde and the rest of Indian Country mourn former Tribal Councilwoman Kathryn Harrison. Harrison was 99 years old and was a matriarch of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

“Kathryn was a true mentor, always there to embrace and guide many through her leadership,” said Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr. “She led with compassion, patience, and passionately and respectfully firm when needed. She guided my early professional life, always instilling the importance of working diligently on behalf of the Native people we serve. She was a true Indian Country Woman Warrior.”

“I’m honored to have known and worked with this courageous tribal leader,” said Grande Ronde Tribal Councilwoman Denise Harvey, an Executive Board Member of the IGA. “Katheryn was fearless when it came to fighting for the rights of tribal people. She will be missed but not forgotten, and we will cherish our memories of her and all she accomplished always. Hayu Masi.”

Harrison was born Kathryn May Jones on March 28, 1924, in Corvallis, OR. Her parents walked on when she was 10 years old from a flu epidemic, and she was raised in an abusive foster care environment. She eventually graduated from Chemawa Indian School in Salem in 1942.

In the mid-1970s, Harrison became the first Native American graduate of Lane Community College’s nursing program and worked at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene and then Lincoln City Hospital. She then went to work as an alcohol rehabilitation counselor for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz on the Oregon coast.

Harrison returned to Grand Ronde in 1980 with restoration experience, having helped the Siletz Tribe secure federal recognition in 1977. By 1982, Harrison was a lead community organizer for the Grand Ronde Restoration effort, mustering support for federal recognition and convincing opposition groups of the justice of Restoration.

Because of her service to her tribe and Indian Country, Harrison received many honors in her lifetime. Upon her retirement from Tribal Council in 2001, 400 people attended an event at Spirit Mountain Casino to honor Harrison. Attendees included former Gov. Kate Brown, who was a state senator at the time, and former Gov. Vic Atiyeh. Her name was inscribed on the Wall of Honor at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., in 2001.

Harrison also received the prestigious Tom McCall Award, created to recognize outstanding contributions from individuals who mirror the spirit and service shown by the former Oregon governor in 2001. She was the first Native American recipient of the Oregon History Maker honor in 2012 by the Oregon Historical Society. She also received the Betty Roberts Women in Leadership Award from Emerge Oregon, a Portland-based training program for Democratic women that same year.

Harrison received honorary degrees from Portland State University in 2003, the University of Portland in 2013, and Willamette University in Salem in 2014.

She became the first Native American to serve on the Board of Directors of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 2018. During Harrison’s tenure as Tribal Council Chair, the tribe and museum reached an agreement in 2000 regarding Tomanowos, or the Willamette Valley meteorite. The agreement settled a claim to Tomanowos filed by the tribe under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Most recently, the Corvallis School District renamed one of its elementary schools after Harrison in May 2022. During an interview for the tribe’s 25th Restoration celebration in 2008, Harrison said, “We are living out the dreams of our elders and our ancestors.”

In her latter years, while confined to a wheelchair, Harrison remained a revered fixture at tribal events, attending Spirit Mountain Community Fund check presentations, an occasional Tribal Council or General Council meeting, and many cultural events.

Harrison had 10 children and is survived by numerous relatives. At the time of her passing, Harrison was the oldest tribal member of the Confederate Tribes of Grande Ronde at age 99.