Whether you call her an advocate or a radical, it is impossible to deny Cecelia Fire Thunder’s determination and clear vision for the future of her tribe.

A leader of a Great Lakes tribe, Tacumwah’s responsibilities were two-fold. She managed daily village life, like all chiefs. But unlike men, Tacumwah saw that moccasins were sewn and feasts were prepared – responsibilities born by her gender.

The daughter of a Miami tribal chief and a Mohican woman, Tacumwah inherited her post. Later, she became a respected leader in her own right. Tacumwah’s people, the Myaamia, would have used the word akima – leader – to describe her.

In Miami tribal society, women’s leadership was respected, as it was in many tribes’ history.  But decades and centuries of Euro-American ideas dramatically altered that tradition, as settlers imposed male-dominated practices on Native American societies. Rations, reservations and relocations acted as agents of assimilation, marking U.S.-Indian relations for more than 200 years.

“It was basically the policy of the federal government that “‘You’re either going to become like us or we’re going to kill you,’” said Carol Rempp, a Lakota woman who coordinates Nebraska’s K-12 multicultural education programs.

These stifling policies stalled women’s leadership until the second half of the 20th century, when educated and vocal Native women began asserting traditional roles. Today, their voices continue to grow stronger, as leaders like Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and Theresa Two Bulls, current president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, shape politics in Indian Country and mainstream society.

It’s a complex story shaped by hundreds of years, and it’s told by the actions of:

  • pastPast leaders whose lives reveal the traditional roles of women
  • respectedRespected elders who serve as inspiration for their people
  • modernModern leaders who push for greater sovereignty
  • prudentPrudent educators who recognize the importance of learning
  • futureFuture leaders who envision the potential of Indian Country

And it’s hoped that together, these voices can help solve the multitude of challenges Native Americans face today.

“Indian people have a lot of problems and those problems aren’t going away,” said Mika Leonard, granddaughter of Floyd Leonard, a noted chief of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma who died in 2008.

The younger Leonard, who graduated recently from Miami University, works at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She plans to pursue a career in politics, advocating for Native people.

“It’s important for women to be leaders,” Leonard said.

Important, because women earned 60 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded to Native Americans in 2007 – a rate that’s remained steady the past 10 years.

Important, because one in 11 Native women operated her own business in 2004, the highest rate of entrepreneurship among all U.S. women, according to the National Women’s Business Council.

Important, because Native women have always been leaders, said Vi Waln, a Sicangu Lakota and the editor of Lakota Country Times, the newspaper that serves South Dakota’s Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations.

“Women are the backbone of society culturally, economically and in all ways,” Waln said.


Hundreds of years ago, this was reflected. Wwomen were the backbones and heartbeats of many tribes.

Oral histories, passed from one generation to the next, preserved those roles. So, too, did colonial documents. Both show women’s leadership roles varied by nation and region.

In the Northeast, for example, women from the Six Nations Confederacy – the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora – participated in village decisions and nominated the confederacy’s 50 chiefs. The confederacy’s constitution, which governed tribes’ rights, granted women ownership of land.

This constitution, and the political structure it was founded upon, inspired writers of the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the unity among the confederacy’s members astounded Benjamin Franklin.

“It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble, and yet a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies,” Franklin wrote in a personal letter in 1751.

Half a continent away, in the Great Plains, Lakota women’s societies counseled tribal government before decisions were made that affected the tribe’s well-being. In the Southwest, Tewa women and men in the San Juan Pueblo were regarded as co-equals. And women in some Pueblo communities owned horses, regarded as some of the tribe’s most important resources.

Meanwhile, the Navajo, Cherokee and many other tribal societies were matrilineal, tracing ancestry and inheriting status and wealth through mothers. That pattern helped guarantee women high regard, some Native American scholars argue.

Those scholars say that fundamentally changed with the arrival of European settlers. Two theories help explain why, said Martha McCollough, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln anthropology professor and former chair of the school’s Native American studies department.

The first, McCollough said, holds that French, British, Dutch and Spanish traders refused to accept the legitimacy of women’s power and property rights.

“The colonialists would not deal with female leaders,” she said.

The second theory maintains that as warfare intensified between tribes and colonists, some tribal societies became more patrilineal, shifting resources from women to men.

That gender gap widened between 1850 and 1887, when most tribes moved to reservations, often a result of force and coercion by the U.S. government. On those reservations, federal agents dealt with “heads-of-families,” leaders they often assumed were men, McCullough said. Consequently, men distributed government-issued rations among family members. When the federal government began dividing tribal land into individual allotments in 1887, after the passage of the Dawes Act, land parcels were most often granted to these heads-of-families.

During that same time, another late-1800s federal policy affected both men and women: the education Indian children in off-reservation boarding schools, where they were taught Western skills, customs and language. Consequently, generations of children lost the guidance of their mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers. And many lost their language, their culture and their identity.


It’s hard to explain the respect Native American cultures afford elders within the contexts of mainstream society, in which the word “elderly” denotes a sort of weakness. That’s not so among many tribes, where elders are often included among tribes’ most respected members.

As a child growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Tina Merdanian promised her grandmother she would share their people’s culture and beauty, which she heard about in her grandma’s stories.

“Grandparents raising you is a very special connection,” said Merdanian, a Lakota woman who directs institutional relations at Red Cloud Indian School.

+ Video

Tina Merdanian talks about her grandmother, and the beauty she saw there.

In Native households, elders often play an integral role in raising grandkids. Seven percent of Native American grandparents lived with their grandchildren in 2004, more than twice the rate of the total U.S. population. In addition, nearly 60 percent of those Native grandparents were at least partly responsible for their grandchildren’s care.

Often some of the best educators in schools are elders who speak directly to children and pass on tribal customs and knowledge.

Philomine Lakota, an Oglala Lakota elder and Red Cloud instructor, teaches her native language to high school students and works to restore her tribe’s rites of passage for young women. Before she began teaching others, Lakota first called on her own elders. The sacred rites help prepare girls for “every shock in life,” she said. “We are learning about these ways, and we are finding ourselves.”

+ Video

Philomine Lakota talks about how the Lakota’s regard a man’s role as the speaker for the woman and the woman’s role as the heart of the nation. They are the center of their home, and they decide how it will be.

The chairperson of the Oglala Sioux Tribe is committed to restoring traditions.  That chairperson is a woman: Theresa Two Bulls.  In November 2008, she became the second female president in the tribe’s history.

“We need to become the strong nation that we were before,” Two Bulls said. “There were hundreds of thousands of us, and yet they lived a good life.”

+ Video

Theresa Two Bulls outlines her political past, saying she was reluctant to run for tribal president because her theme was change, and a lot of her people are afraid of a change.


Across the U.S., Native American female leaders like President Two Bulls, Chief Glenna Wallace and Chairperson Janice Mabee challenge daily the “good ol’ boys” system that has long formed tribal government.

“Because of Native American cultural tendencies, there are some men who believe, almost like a biblical verse, that women should just be silent,” said Wallace, who was elected chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma in 2006 after serving on the tribal business council for 20 years. “Then there are some who say, ‘I never thought women should be chiefs, but you changed my mind.’”

Wallace was among the 131 women listed on the National Congress of American Indians tribal leader registry in January 2009. Together, these women lead nearly one-quarter of the nation’s 562 federally recognized tribes. More than half of those leaders are concentrated in two states: 57 in Alaska and 34 in California. Four more women guide state-recognized tribes in Connecticut, North Carolina and Louisiana.

Women, Wallace said, must be at the forefront of tribal leadership today.

“Females in almost every culture, simply from statistics, have a longer role, a greater role, in taking care of the next generation,” she said. “We just can’t afford to be meek and mild anymore.”

Chairperson Mabee of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe agreed. One of four female leaders among Washington’s 29 tribes, Mabee didn’t know if she could help her tribe, but knew she had to try.

“I told my husband that if I become chairman, I will no longer have my own life,” she said. “I will belong to the tribe. He said, ‘That’s what being a leader is: belonging to the tribe.’”

Under Mabee’s leadership, the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe has developed an economic board to help promote stability and to employ members in the tribally- owned smoke shop and delicatessen.

Judi gaiashkibos serves as the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs executive director, a post she has held since 1995. In her state and elsewhere, the Ponca woman said, Native issues have been far from the top of government agendas for a long time.

“Historically, tribes have always been an afterthought,” gaiashkibos said. “They’ve always been a dog-and-pony show.”

But today, an increasing number of Native women are speaking for their people from within state and federal governments. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed two leaders to positions never before held by Native American women. Jodi Archambault Gillete, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member, became the deputy associate director of the president’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, a Lakota woman from the Rosebud Indian Reservation, became the first female director of the Indian Health Service.

The two leaders illustrate how Native women can make a difference on the national platform, said Waln, the South Dakota newspaper editor.

“It’s really important for us to see them in those positions,” Waln said. “We can move up the ladder. We can hold those positions of power in Washington.”

But Native women must climb the ladder’s first rungs: education.


“We can get through poverty by education,” said Victoria Sherman, principal of Pine Ridge Schools. “We can get through alcohol and drug issues.”

The principal, an Oglala Lakota, knows how difficult obtaining an education is. She attended 13 schools before graduating from high school. Later, as a reservation teacher and administrator, Sherman was reminded all too often of the struggle: In the past 10 years, she has buried 25 students.

“As a leader, you just have to keep telling people, ‘We can do this,’” Sherman said.

And for Native American children – boys and girls – something must be done, leaders say.  Native and Hispanic students on and off reservations share the country’s highest high school dropout rate: 12 percent in 2007, according to the 2009 Kids Count Data Book, an annual report published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That rate stood at 22 percent in 1997.

Native teens alone hold the nation’s highest death rate. Ninety-five of every 100,000 Native American teenagers between 15 and 19 died in 2006, the latest year data was available from the Casey Foundation. Six years earlier, in 2000, 88 of every 100,000 Native teenagers died.

Some Native students live in the country’s most economically impoverished conditions, too. Thirty-one percent of Native American children between the ages of birth and 19 lived in poverty in 2008, nearly twice the rate of the overall U.S. population.

But Sherman and other educators agree that perseverance on their part – and on the part of their students – will produce a future generation of leaders.

“We tend to baby our kids because they have hard lives,” Sherman said. “These bad things happen to us, but they don’t have to control us.”

Nebraska’s multicultural educator Rempp said teachers and administrators should integrate cultural practices into classrooms to accommodate students and prepare them for high school and college.

“It used to be that to provide for your family, you needed to be a good hunter,” she said. “You still need to be a good hunter, but not a good buffalo hunter, but a good hunter in finding a career path so you can take care of your family.”


Not only can educated women take care of their families; the next generation of female leaders can solve the problems Indian Country faces today, Sherman said.

“Today, our Native American women, their opportunities are unlimited,” she said.

As a whole, the Native American population is relatively young, with a median age of 31.9 years, compared to non-Hispanic whites, whose median age is 40.1 years, according to the 2004 U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

For some, positive signs mark the road of the future.

For example, the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development honored the top 40 Natives under the age of 40 in September 2009. Half of those honored were women, including a lawyer, a college adviser and a fashion designer.

In fact, entrepreneurship among Native American women is growing at a faster rate than any other ethnic population. More than 90,000 businesses were owned by Native American womenNative American women owned more than 90,000 businesses five years ago, employing nearly 129,000 people and generating $12.4 billion in sales.

In addition, the number of Native American women who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees has outpaced men by 3 to 2 during the past 10 years, according to the Department of Education.

Nakina Mills is one of those graduates. The Pine Ridge native received her bachelor’s degree from Creighton University before returning home to coordinate her tribe’s child welfare program.

Progress in Indian communities, Mills said, must start with improving children’s lives.

“It’s coming, it’s just not gonna happen overnight,” she said. “You gotta have hope. You gotta have hope that there’s better things out there.


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