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At the top of the tribe: as tribal leaders, American Indian women are breaking with tradition even as they work to preserve it.

The Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe of South Dakota is often remembered for the male leaders of its past--men like Crazy Horse and Red Cloud. Now, Cecelia Fire Thunder

is also likely to be a memorable Oglala Lakota Sioux leader: About a year and a half ago, she became the first woman to be elected president on Pine Ridge, a reservation in South Dakota that is the country's second-largest in land area.

Fire Thunder, 59, is one of a growing group of female Indian leaders. According to the National Congress of American Indians, there are 133 women serving as leaders among more than 560 recognized tribes, and the number of women serving as top tribal leaders has nearly doubled over the past 25 years.

Fire Thunder's time as the tribe's leader has been tense. Her opponent in the election was Russell Means, an activist and actor, who challenged Fire Thunder's victory in a federal lawsuit. Some tribe members later called for her impeachment, amid complaints she had made questionable financial decisions and ignored the wishes of tribal elders.

By the time the Tribal Council dropped the impeachment complaint in December, Fire Thunder and many of her supporters had come to believe that her being a woman was at the root of the turmoil. Though some disagree with Fire Thunder's assertion of bias, she stands as an illustration of the shifting role American Indian women are playing in tribal governments.


"I never thought my being a woman was a big deal until I got in," says Fire Thunder. "A woman may not seem traditional to some, but in the traditional Lakota teachings I grew up with, you are required to do what you can with what you have. That's been my whole life."

In part, the rise of women to tribal leadership reflects a progression from other roles women fill on reservations. They are often the administrators, the teachers, the community organizers, and in recent years, more likely than men to receive broader education beyond the reservation: Far more American Indian women are now earning college and advanced degrees than men.

And just as women started returning to reservations with their degrees, leadership opportunities were opening up. Some came about because residents were ready for a change after years of slow economic growth. In other cases, tribes turned to women in response to management challenges accompanying the rush of revenues from casinos and other new programs. (All female tribal leaders elected since 1999 are from tribes with casinos.)

The downside is that women's rise to power may also reflect the struggles with joblessness, alcoholism, and poverty of many American Indian men.

As more women head tribal governments, the agendas of those governments seem to be more focused on issues of child welfare, social services, and education. Change has also brought growing pains: adjusting titles in constitutions that anticipated the possibility only of a chairman, and coping with council members or tribal elders who repeatedly interrupt or ignore female leaders.

Tensions were even more pronounced in tribes that elected women earlier on. Wilma Mankiller, elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in 1985, is considered the first woman in modern times to lead a major Native American tribe. She remembers one man saying, "If we elect a woman, we'll be the laughing stock of all tribes." Other women currently serving as tribal leaders include Vivian Juan-Saunders, 46, the first woman to head the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona. Erma J. Vizenor, 61, who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard, was elected in 2004 as the first woman to lead the White Earth band of Ojibwe in Minnesota. She is now known as Ogimaakwe (oh-gih-maah-quay)--which is Ojibwe for "boss lady."


For some women, moving ahead means an awkward balancing act. Last spring, Rebecca A. Miles, 33, became the first woman to lead the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee in Idaho.

"We've become less traditional, and I'm part of that, and that is a tough thing for me to say," Miles says. "I'm a modern leader in a modern government, and that is good and bad. How does somebody like myself ensure that my leadership works to protect the traditions that are so sacred to us, and that may not have included a woman in this role?"

Monica Davey is a national correspondent for The New York Times.

Monica Davey

in South Dakota
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Title Annotation:Cecelia Fire Thunder
Author:Davey, Monica
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 8, 2006
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