Public memorial service honors Kathryn Harrison

Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy speaks during the memorial service for Tribal Elder Kathryn Harrison held at Spirit Mountain Casino’s Event Center on Sunday, June 4. Harrison walked on May 21 at the age of 99. (Photos by Michelle Alaimo)


By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

Several hundred people, including federal, state and Tribal leaders, attended a public memorial service for Grand Ronde Tribal Elder Kathryn Harrison held Sunday, June 4, at Spirit Mountain Casino’s Event Center.

Harrison was instrumental in the Restoration efforts of two Oregon Tribes – the Siletz and Grand Ronde. She walked on at the age of 99 on May 21. At the time of her passing, Harrison was the Grand Ronde Tribe’s eldest Elder and a revered figure for her work on the Restoration effort in the early 1980s, and for 17 years of service on the Grand Ronde Tribal Council between 1984 and 2001.

The more than two-hour service was segmented to honor Harrison’s myriad roles throughout her life. There were tributes from two nieces, fellow Restoration workers with both the Siletz and Grand Ronde Tribes, from federal and state leaders regarding her service on Tribal Council and Tribal-state governmental relationships, and from others regarding her community service.

“I’m here to welcome you and to thank you for honoring our beloved Chairwoman Kathryn Harrison who many of you have worked with for many, many years,” said Grand Ronde Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy in her opening remarks that occurred after the Veterans Color Guard, Grand Ronde Singers and Veterans Royalty brought in the flags and performed “The Lord’s Prayer.”

“Today, we gather here to bid farewell to our beloved chairwoman. We pray that God, our Creator, rest her soul and gather her in his bosom,” Kennedy added.

The stage featured a black-and-white portrait of Harrison, her regalia, a blanket presented to her by the Corvallis School District in 2022, several bouquets of flowers and a photo of her signing a gaming compact with the state of Oregon in 1993.

Oregon Historical Society Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk was the master of ceremonies, commenting that “good things come in small packages,” referring to Harrison’s height.

“She was a woman who was a living and breathing example that one person can indeed change history for the better,” Tymchuk said.

Harrison’s nieces, Grand Ronde Tribal member Lisa Watson and Umatilla Tribal Chair Kat Brigham, talked about their auntie.

“I feel such comfort knowing that she is now with her beloved parents who she missed terribly every day,” Watson wrote in a statement read by Tymchuk. “I know many of you, like me, heard her speak often of trying to live her life in good ways that would make her parents proud of her. I think she succeeded gloriously in that effort. … She stands tall, watching over us with our ancestors, which brings me great comfort.”

Watson was unable to attend the event because her husband was recovering from surgery.

“She cared more about people than herself. … She had an impact on all of us,” Brigham said before reading a statement from Jamestown S’Kallam Tribal Council Chair W. Ron Allen, who is also a former president of the National Congress of American Indians. “We will miss her leadership,” Allen wrote about Harrison’s effect on Indian Country nationwide.

Grand Ronde Lilu Skul children sang “anqati tilaxam (Ancestor’s Song)” before Grand Ronde Tribal member Bryan Mercier, who is regional director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Portland and a former Hatfield Fellow, appeared in a video to discuss how Harrison mentored and inspired him.

“I’m going to miss her immensely,” Mercier said, recalling how he was one of the first four members of the Natural Resources Department’s Summer Youth Crew Program in the early 1990s. “What an amazing woman she was. She talked about Restoration, about how proud she was of us four young boys starting this new program and she demonstrated that caring personality that we’ve all come to love. … She really had an impact on my career.”

Following a short video created by Smoke Signals Social Media/Digital Journalist and Tribal member Kamiah Koch, Siletz Tribal Council Chairwoman Delores Pigsley and Kennedy discussed Harrison’s roles in their respective Tribal Restoration efforts that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Pigsley recalled rooming with Harrison during the Siletz’s drive for Restoration.

“Getting to know Kathryn was interesting. … We traveled together. We ate together. We made presentations to some very ugly organizations at that time during Restoration,” Pigsley said. “… When we went to Washington, D.C., her and I testified before Congress. It was at a time when the fish wars were happening on the Columbia. Kathryn felt very strongly about her issues, the health care and nutrition for Tribal members. She is the only person I know that has served on two Tribal Councils, two different Tribes for Restoration, and that in itself is a big feat.”

Kennedy said the Grand Ronde Tribe’s subsequent effort for Restoration was a “vision of the heart” and that Tribal members owe a great debt of gratitude to Harrison and the others who volunteered and eventually accomplished Restoration in 1983.

“She went in with an educational approach, a very professional approach and took our message,” Kennedy said about Harrison testifying before Congress on behalf of the Grand Ronde Tribe.

Following another song by the Grand Ronde Singers led by Cultural Advisor Bobby Mercier, a slew of federal and state leaders paid tribute to Harrison.

In-person attendees included U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, former Oregon State Sen. Margaret Carter, who sang a gospel-tinged “If I can help somebody, then my living will not be in vain,” and former Oregon Govs. Barbara Roberts and Kate Brown.

“She was a leader and a work horse,” Roberts, who was in office during the negotiations for the gaming compact, said.

Brown, who served many years on the Spirit Mountain Community Fund Board of Trustees before leading the state, called Harrison a “giant” after getting to know her while serving on the Legislative Commission on Indian Services.

“Words that come to mind when I think of Kathryn include guts, servant, leader, integrity, humility, perseverance and dogged determination, loyalty, visionary, collaborative, truth teller amongst many,” Brown said. “It’s truly mindboggling the challenges she faced and the obstacles she surmounted. … May her legacy of grit and grace, compassion and courage, live on for the next seven generations.”

Former Oregon Rep. Les AuCoin, who introduced the Grand Ronde Restoration Act in the House of Representatives in 1983 and had a 45-year friendship with Harrison, provided a video salute while former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and current Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek submitted written statements.

“She lit up the lives of all who knew her,” AuCoin said. “Born into humble beginnings, she inspired countless souls with her unforgettable example of compassion, benevolence and goodwill. … Now Kathryn’s work on Earth is done. She sits with her forbearers watching to see if we will follow her example. We will, Kathryn. You are the newest star in the sky and we will always see your light.”

“She was the spirit in Spirit Mountain Casino,” Kotek said.

Tribal Lands Manager Jan Michael Looking Wolf Reibach, a multiple Native American Music Awards recipient, performed “We Are All One Family” on Native flute accompanied by Robin Gentlewolf and Lori Sandall.

Tribal Council member Michael Cherry, who is a former director of Spirit Mountain Community Fund, talked about Harrison’s desire to see her succeed in her new job in 2017 and how proud she was of Cherry when she was elected to Tribal Council in 2021.

Tribal Council member Michael Cherry speaks during the memorial service for Tribal Elder Kathryn Harrison held at Spirit Mountain Casino’s Event Center on Sunday, June 4. Harrison walked on May 21 at the age of 99. (Photos by Michelle Alaimo)

Four students from Kathryn Jones Harrison Elementary School in Corvallis discussed meeting Harrison in 2022 when the Corvallis School District renamed one of its elementary schools after her. All four students talked about how honored they were to meet “Mrs. Kathryn.”

Harrison biographer Kris Olson discussed her interviews with Harrison for the book “Standing Tall: The Lifeway of Kathryn Jones Harrison.” She said Harrison had lived long enough to jettison all signs of pretense and was able to tell her life story without glossing over the bad times, such as being raised in an abusive foster care home or being married and having 10 children with an abusive, alcoholic husband.

Olson added that Harrison had an extensive memory for 1960s rock song lyrics, particularly Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz.”

The final video tribute came from American Museum of Natural History Director Lisa Guggenheim. Harrison was on Tribal Council when the Tribe negotiated an agreement with the New York City museum that allowed Tomanowos – the Willamette meteorite – to remain at the museum in exchange for annual ceremonial visits by Grand Ronde Tribal members to the sacred object.

The ceremony concluded with a blessing from Cherry and fellow Grand Ronde Tribal Council member Jon A. George and a closing drum and song by the Grand Ronde Singers.

“She was a true warrior,” Bobby Mercier said before beginning the final drum.

Following the memorial service, attendees were invited to stay for a 1 p.m. salmon luncheon.

Harrison’s extended family and Grand Ronde Tribal members held a private ceremony at the achaf-hammi plankhouse on Saturday, June 3, that included traditional ceremonies and was not open to the public or media.

Harrison was buried at the Grand Ronde Tribal Cemetery on Sunday, June 4. Pall bearers were Bobby Mercier, Jordan Mercier, Michael Van Pelt, Robert Van Pelt, Gary Tarr and Frank Rich.

At the time of her walking on, she was a resident of the Tribe’s Adult Foster Care Elk Lodge.

The memorial service also was streamed on the Tribal governmental website and watched by 55 people.