Kathryn Harrison was born Kathryn May Jones on March 28, 1924, in Corvallis to Harry William Jones and Ella Flemming. Her father was Molalla and her mother Eyak from Alaska. Her grandparents were George A. Flemming Sr. and Elena Kal’Tane and Billy Jones and Philomene Nellie Jones. Her name honored her great-great-aunt, Molalla Kate.
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.
She married Frank Harrison and had 10 children before enrolling at Lane Community College in Eugene. In the mid-1970s, she became the first Native American graduate of the 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.
She returned to Grand Ronde in 1980 with Restoration experience under her belt, 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.
In October 1983, Harrison, Marvin Kimsey, Jackie Colton and two of Harrison’s children – Frank and Karen – traveled to Washington, D.C.
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., 2001.
She 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 given out 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 held 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. Her most recent public appearances were attending Bruce Thomas’ retirement party held at Spirit Mountain Casino on May 4 and the Wellness Canoe Naming Ceremony held Saturday, May 20, at the achaf-hammi plankhouse.
She resided at the Adult Foster Care lodges in Grand Ronde.
Harrison had 10 children: Frank Harrison, Tom Harrison, Ray Harrison, Roger Harrison, David Harrison, Patsy Pullin, Jeanette Harrison, Kathy Coley, Diane Harrison and Karen Askins. She is survived by numerous relatives.
At the time of her passing, Harrison was the oldest Tribal member at the age of 99. That distinction now passes to Lorene Belle Smith, who is 98.
Funeral services are being arranged by West Valley Funeral Home in Sheridan. A public memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Sunday, June 4, at Spirit Mountain Casino with a meal being served at 1 p.m.