Editors report: Indian women in government
Published Oct 17, 2008
Indian Country Today
More Indian women are taking leadership roles in tribal government. Although the rate of participation by women in tribal government leadership is still less than men, women play a significant role in tribal politics and will likely play increasingly stronger roles in the future. Unlike in Canada, where there is a national Native women’s organization that has challenged directly the power positions of men, Indian women in the United States have not formed a similar movement. There are active national organizations that address domestic violence and are aimed at the protection of Indian women, but no national women’s organization that challenges the male domination of American Indian tribal and national politics.
Many tribal communities had matrilineal kinship structures in which women had great influence. Women, however, generally deferred the roles of spokesperson for the clan or kinship group to men. There are some accounts of women leaders: the De Soto Expedition of about 1540 recounts meeting with several female leaders. However, there are also some patrilineal American Indian tribes, as in many of the southern California nations, where men dominate kinship relations. Even in the patrilineal communities, Indian women often had their own families and forms of ceremony and organization, where they could at critical times express voice and political power.
Indian women in leadership roles do not derive directly from the social and political power of women in traditional society. Some argue there is no Indian women’s feminist movement because Indian women do not want to establish financial and political equality with men as in the mainstream feminist movement, but rather want to restore the respect and powers that Indian women held in traditional society.
During the colonial period, Europeans discouraged Indian women in positions of political and economic power. The colonists preferred to negotiate economic and political issues with men, in a reflection of their own ways of managing gender relations, which largely subjugated women and treated them as legal property. Although the rate of participation by women in tribal government leadership is still less than men, women play a significant role in tribal politics and will likely play increasingly stronger roles in the future.
The cultural, economic and political influence of the colonists had the effect of relegating Indian women to secondary political and economic roles. Some communities, influenced by Christian teachings, adopted modified creation stories that told Adam and Eve-like stories that blamed women for the creation of evil in the world and served to symbolically justify the subordination of Indian women.
The emergence of contemporary Indian women in leadership is, in part, based on the continuity of traditional political roles; but now women take positions of delegated authority, such as councilperson or chair. The delegated powers are not traditional and are part of new constitutional forms, and women are allowed to vote and take political office. Contemporary Indian women’s political leadership is at the cutting edge of both American and traditional tribal forms of leadership.