The History of Indigenous Women's Leadership

By Maura Reilly on October 23, 2019

“My young men are to lay aside their weapons; they are to take up the work of women; they will plow the field and raise the crops; for them I see a future, but my women, they to whom we owe everything, what is there for them to do? I see nothing! You are a woman; have pity on my women when everything is taken from them.”

In the 2018 midterms, Deb Haaland (NM-01) and Sharice Davids (KS-03) won their respective elections and became the first Native American women to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Out of 18 total Native Americans who have served in the House, only two are women, and no Native American woman has ever served in the Senate. Of the 598 member tribes in the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) women only lead 120, roughly twenty percent, as of 2015. These statistics illustrate the continued impact of colonialism on America Indian tribal nations, and American Indian women in particular. 

The irony of the current situation is that long before the women’s suffrage and centuries before European nations stumbled across America, women’s equality and leadership thrived among many Native American nations. Prior to colonialism, the communal governance structures of many Native nations “granted women respect and authority; exemplary of the gender egalitarianism practiced by many Native societies.” While women did not always serve as chiefs, they were often included in tribal decisions and leadership and where often viewed as spiritual authorities. In the case of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), who served as inspiration to the early suffragettes, descent was matrilineal, women chose when and if the tribe went to war, women chose the chief, and the selling of land needed women’s consent. But the entrance of colonialism and U.S. federal interaction with Native Americans worked systematically to impose patriarchal norms on tribes.

With colonialism in the Americas came, the imposition of new and often patriarchal social organization. Conversion to Christianity was often a main tenant for many colonizing missions. The suffragette, Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote in her book Woman, Church and State (1893) “Christianity has tended somewhat from its foundation to restrict the liberty woman enjoyed under the old civilizations.” While some debate can be had on whether this is a universal truth, it certainly rings true for Native women who found themselves suddenly thrust into a new colonial, Christian world. In the U.S.  Southwest, Spanish colonization included forced conversion to Catholicism, which altered existing social organization, including access to and ownership of resources and the gender-based distributions of tasks. The imposition of new gender hierarchies continued with the entrance of the U.S. federal government. The U.S. created the boarding-school system, which forcibly removed many Native children and enrolled them in schools designed to “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man.” The boarding schools aimed to assimilate Native children into American norms and culture, a set of norms and culture which only trained Native girls in gendered, domestic tasks such as cooking and sewing. Boarding schools had the added detriment of removing girls from their families and tribes preventing them from obtaining leadership roles within their communities. The Dawes/Allotment Act, passed in 1887, reinforced patriarchal values by granting allotments only to male heads of households, despite land often being matrilineal among Native American nations. In an 1888 speech to the International Council of Women, anthropologist Alice Fletcher, conveyed the quote of a chief she had been working with, he pleaded:

“My young men are to lay aside their weapons; they are to take up the work of women; they will plow the field and raise the crops; for them I see a future, but my women, they to whom we owe everything, what is there for them to do? I see nothing! You are a woman; have pity on my women when everything is taken from them.”

Since the founding of the United States, and well before our Independence, many atrocities have been carried out against Indigenous groups, many policies have relegated Indigenous peoples as second-class citizens, both men and women alike. But Native women face the double burden of being both female and Native; as Angie Morrill, Maile Arvin and Eve Tuck write “the experiences and intellectual contributions of Indigenous women are not on the margins; we have been an invisible presence in the center, hidden by the gendered logics of settler colonialism for over 500 years.” Native women continue to face a disproportionate number of obstacles, but the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller provides us with a good start to correct these seemingly insurmountable disadvantages, “look forward, turn what has been done into a better path.” A better path forward includes Native women in leadership positions, be it at the local, tribal or national level.

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