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Too few Native women toss their beaded headgear into ring

There's shuffling feet and creaking chairs as politicians take new positions, now that the Democrats have made big gains in the federal and state governments. Changes took place on reservations, too, but not along party lines.

There's shuffling feet and creaking chairs as politicians take new positions, now that the Democrats have made big gains in the federal and state governments. Changes took place on reservations, too, but not along party lines.

It may be surprising to some, but political parties such as Democratic and Republican are not part of Plains tribes' way. I say Plains tribes because many tribes involved in megacasinos are aware that political parties can help or hinder the success of their most important "cash cow."

On reservations, deep pockets and big campaign budgets are not as useful. Instead, the winners usually are the candidates who know how to campaign - who know and understand their community and keep family lines, relatives and clanships intact. And it usually doesn't cost them their beaded belt or jingle dress, either.

There is, however, one change in Plains tribal government that is telling.

Women are stepping forward with an eye on the tribe's top position; some women made it to the primaries. In some cases, this represents the first time a woman has attempted to invade this male-dominated world. And it's not only in Indian country: When Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., takes her place as the Speaker of the U.S. House, she will be the first woman ever to hold that powerful position.


The Navajo Nation, a sovereign Native American tribe traditionally known as Dine' or The People, never have elected a woman as chairman. This year, current President Joe Shirley Jr. won re-election; but he had run against a woman, Lynda Lovejoy, the first woman to ever make it into the Navajo's general election.

The Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the country, with a land base that is about the size of West Virginia. Its population is 180,462 and the government consists of 88 council delegates.

Lovejoy's run for a governmental position may be a harbinger of what the Dine' could see in the future

One of the challengers on Nov. 7 for the Oglala Nation in Pine Ridge, S.D., was Cecelia Fire Thunder. I watched Fire Thunder during the past four years. She was elected, impeached and then picked herself up and ran again.

She was third on the ballot and didn't make the primaries. Then, one of the top two candidates, Alex White Plume, was taken off the ballot because he had an old felony conviction on his record, making him ineligible to run.

Fire Thunder was back on the ballot - but alas, after all of the ballots were counted, John Yellow Bird (no relation) Steele was voted in.

The Pine Ridge reservation is the second-largest reservation in the nation. It has a land base about half the size of Connecticut and a population of 14,068.

It was significant that Fire Thunder made it as far as she did. Fire Thunder is a strong woman, something that is needed in tribal governments - and the Oglala tribal government should make room for her to work with them in some capacity.


Farther north in New Town, N.D., home of the Three Affiliated Tribes, Ramona Two Shields came close to making the runoff but was outdone by Tex Hall and Marcus Wells Jr., the current chairman and vice-chairman. Wells won.

Again, Wells would do well to find a place for Two Shields in his administration. She has financial and administrative experience after 30 years as a contracting officer for the Navy.

On my trip into Canada a few weeks ago, I met the chief of the Canupawakpa Dakota (Ojibway) Nation people - Viola Eastman. This reserve is a small aboriginal community not far from Winnipeg and Brandon, Man.

Eastman is in her second term and makes the job look easy. She has the charisma to hold an audience - and more important, on the top of her list of concerns is a balanced budget.

When I looked over the center of our country, I wondered: Why have so few Indian women tried to move into leadership roles? Is it tradition? In the past, men were leaders and warriors while the women cared for the home and children. This is not a new concept, even among the non-Native early settlers. Women had their place and role back then, and it wasn't in government.

Do Indian women fear the backlash and backtalk from tribal people if they pursue a leadership role? Perhaps the problem lies within our own gender. There are women who object to women candidates; have the years they've spent in supportive roles trained women to believe that leadership is for men only?

Whatever the reason, Fire Thunder, Two Shields and Lovejoy should take courage. They can bring heart to tribal government and our communities - and we need them. They are also an indication of what is to come.

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