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  • American Indian Female Leadership
  • Mary Jo Tippeconnic Fox (bio), Eileen M. Luna-Firebaugh (bio), and Caroline Williams (bio)

“Friends describe me as someone who likes to dance along the edge of the roof,” she wrote. “I try to encourage young women to be willing to take risks, to stand up for the things they believe in, and to step up and accept the challenge of serving in leadership roles.”

Wilma Mankiller, as quoted in The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice

In the United States, an increasing number of American Indian women are accepting leadership roles in various capacities in and outside of Indian communities. The National Congress of American Indians’ (NCAI) Web site lists 598 tribes as members, with women leading in approximately 120 of the 598, or 20 percent. In addition to political arenas, American Indian women are providing leadership in many other areas, including higher education, the criminal justice system, and urban Indian and tribal organizations.1

Traditional leadership roles for American Indian women took different forms, and leadership was displayed in various venues depending [End Page 82] on the specific tribe. In some tribes, women were clan mothers, women warriors, beloved women, medicine women, and spiritual persons. These women had many responsibilities including choosing tribal leaders, deciding on when to go to war, and determining the fate of captives. However, many of these traditional female roles and responsibilities changed with colonization.2

This cultural loss can be attributed to the complex effects that federal educational policies had and are having in the lives of everyday American Indian women.3 During the latter part of the 1800s, young girls were forcibly removed from their families and taken to off-reservation boarding schools.4 The girls were trained in the schools for a life in domestic service; knowing one’s Native language and culture played no part in this new role.5 This separation from family and community led to a decrease in women having leadership roles in most Native societies. The federal compulsory boarding schools emphasized gendered tasks for girls, including needlework and cleaning. This contributed to the disparity that exists between the roles women once held and now hold in Native communities. As a result of boarding schools and other effects of colonization including laws and policies, numerous tribes adopted the attitudes of the dominant society toward women, disregarding traditional roles and customs about women’s place in the society and disrupting harmony and balance. Some have asserted that this disharmony and imbalance has caused many of the contemporary social problems tribes are experiencing.6 However, as in the past, American Indian women continue in their formal and informal leadership positions in spite of attempts by Europeans, religious groups, the U.S. government, and even some of their own tribal members to diminish their role.

Acknowledging the impact of colonization upon the traditional roles of American Indian women led the authors to investigate whether ethnicity and culture are factors for American Indian women in leadership positions. This investigation led to three specific research questions:

  • • Does ethnicity affect the way American Indian women lead?

  • • Does culture affect American Indian female leadership?

  • • Does culture encourage or discourage female leadership?

To answer the questions, the authors of this essay conducted a two-part study. The first part was a questionnaire that sought an overall picture of female leadership and was sent to 500 tribal governments, urban organizations, and tribal higher educational institutions. One hundred and five (105) surveys were returned with listings of women in different leadership positions. Secondly, a survey was administered to American Indian female leaders at a convention focus group and through the mail [End Page 83] in 2006–2007. This essay presents and discusses our findings that ethnicity and culture influence American Indian women’s leadership.


Northouse, a noted scholar of leadership and communications, defines culture as the commonly shared beliefs, values, and norms of a group of people.7 These shared qualities make cultures unique. Cultures are dynamic and can be transmitted to others. Although there is an increased interest in this area since World War II, there are, to date, no established theories of cultural leadership. What exists is...


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