Women are emerging from positions of authority in traditional tribal culture to more public roles.
American Indian women are not strangers to leadership and power. In traditional tribal culture, women often hold positions of authority, participating in decisions affecting their families and communities. They are responsible for preserving values and culture as well as caring for their families. Indeed, many tribes use a matrilineal system in establishing clan membership, an essential aspect of tribal life that determines individuals’ roles in marriage, life and culture.
More recently, however, this leadership has taken on a public face. Fourteen of the country’s 37 tribal college presidents are women. According to the National Congress of American Indians, more than 130 women serve as leaders among the more than 550 tribes in the United States.
Cheryl Crazy Bull, of the Sicangu Lakota Nation and president of Northwest Indian College, says the new public role of Indian women leaders isn’t purely an outgrowth of the traditional women’s tribal role. “We are creating new roles for ourselves, evolving and changing.
We are in new territory,” she says. How do American Indian women leaders view their changing roles in Indian country? Two women tribal leaders share their perspectives on this issue that includes many common themes — a sense of community responsibility that is an outgrowth of caring for family and tribe, a fierce dedication to personal vision and a belief in the power of education to realize their vision. Ada Deer, of the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin, is a woman of “firsts.” She was the first woman to lead her tribe, the first Menominee to earn a master’s degree, the first woman to serve as the assistant secretary of Indian affairs in the Department of the Interior and the first American Indian woman to run for Congress and for Wisconsin’s secretary of state. In 2007, she retired from the University of Wisconsin where she had worked since 1977, first as a lecturer in the School of Social Work and later as the director of the Indian Studies Program. Born on the Menominee Reservation in northern Wisconsin, Deer is the eldest of five children born to Joseph Deer, Menominee, and Constance Wood Deer. Wood Deer was a member of one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest families, but raised as a Quaker. She rejected her wealth and worked as a nurse on the Menominee Reservation where she met and married Deer. The couple raised their children in a small log cabin they built for themselves on the reservation with no running water or electricity. Soon, however, Wood Deer found herself on her own in having to provide for her family as her husband struggled with alcoholism. “I was born an adult,” Deer laughs.
With her father frequently out of the picture, Deer acted as co-parent for her siblings. She recalls chopping wood and hauling water for her family and minding the children while her mother worked to make ends meet. She knew early on that she didn’t want to be poor.
Economics, however, was not the primary motivation to attend college and take on leadership roles.
Deer’s mother and tribe instilled her with a deep desire to do her part for her family and community. Indeed, the defense of her tribe and land was the main motivation drawing Deer into leadership.
By the 1960s, the Menominee Tribe was in desperate straits. The victim of the federal policy of Termination, designed to end tribal status as sovereign nations, the tribe found itself devastated by poverty and at risk of losing its land. Termination was designed to assimilate Indians into mainstream society by terminating the U.S. government’s trusteeship of reservations. Tribes lost their recognized status as sovereign entities as well as treaty guarantees to land and hunting and fishing rights. Deer came back to the reservation to help organize opposition to the policy. She and other activists formed the Determination of Rights and Unity for Menominee Stockholders (DRUMS); she was named its leader.
In 1973, in response to the work of Deer and DRUMS, President Richard Nixon signed the Menominee Restoration Act, reinstating the tribes’ sovereign status. The legislation formally ended the federal policy of tribal termination and set a valuable precedent for tribal restoration. Deer went on to be the chair of the Menominee Restoration Committee, an interim tribal governing board that implemented the legislation, for three years. Of her many professional accomplishments, however, she continues to find her restoration efforts to be the most important work of her life.
“Our purpose is to strengthen our people, our families and our children, and to act in the face of glaring human needs,” Deer says. She is lighthearted about the many challenges she has faced in tribal politics and the world at large.
“Fortunately, I have tough Deer hide!” she jokes.
Doing for Self
Karen Diver, of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, is the first female leader of the northern Minnesota band. The reservation, located near the city of Duluth, is the largest employer in the county with more than 2,000 employees and $400 million in assets.
It is one of six Chippewa Indian reservations in Minnesota. Diver, elected in 2007, came well prepared for the job: she graduated from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, with a degree in economics and holds a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She has an extensive background in the nonprofit sector and community development. More important, however, Diver has a passion for social justice and a commitment to serving her community.
A single mother at 15, Diver came to this passion first hand as she struggled to educate herself while supporting her daughter.
“My parents taught me the importance of education and doing for yourself,” she recalls.
Her parents, both enrolled Fond du Lac members, moved to Cleveland in the 1960s as part of the federal relocation program that moved thousands of American Indians from the reservations to cities from the 1940s to the 1970s. Ostensibly designed to assimilate American Indians into mainstream America, many who relocated maintained strong ties to their tribal homelands. Despite being raised in Cleveland, Fond du Lac was always considered home.
***imge2:left***“I knew I would return one day and serve the tribe,” Diver says. A residency requirement to receive a tribal scholarship originally brought Diver back to Minnesota. Her life as a student was not easy. She remembers taking three buses to get her daughter to daycare and herself to class each morning. She had some late and lonely nights away from her family in Cleveland. This experience, however, contributed to her commitment to advocacy for others. She knows firsthand the challenges of being on welfare and trying to make ends meet while working toward success, she says.
Finally after more than 11 years working in the local nonprofit sector doing community and program development, she felt prepared to share her skills with the Fond du Lac Band. She says that her gender did not really have an impact on her campaign for tribal chairperson.
“I think my professional background and education overshadowed the gender issues,” she says.
Diver’s governing philosophy encourages personal self-sufficiency for tribal members as the tribe emerges from a long period of dependency on federal and tribal programming. Job training and education are a big part of current tribal services, she notes. The tribe has a strong partnership with the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College; members are provided access to education from birth to the second year of college on or near the reservation; and the tribe has a tribal scholarship fund for postsecondary education.
Diver sees the struggles faced by American Indian women to be much like those faced by all women.
“Women are still playing catch-up in education and still trying to balance family pressures while investing in themselves,” she notes.
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