Manataka American Indian Council












Even though this story was published nearly four years ago, it remains timely and with good lessons.

Group seeks solidarity among Indian women
by Emily Johns, AP


Susan Masten

MINNEAPOLIS - When Susan Masten first campaigned to lead California's Yurok tribe, she was up against five men. One told her she wasn't qualified because she was still "playing with Barbie dolls."

"No one would make that kind of remark about a tribal male," Masten recalled.

Though she lost that race, Masten went on to victory in 1997. But she never forgot the insult.

Since then, Masten said she's been intent on helping American Indian women establish their own network, supporting each other for jobs, working to get each other elected, even buying goods and services from each other.

Last year, when her term as chairwoman expired, she founded the group Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations, which begins a national, three-day conference in Minneapolis Thursday. The meeting, which is expected to draw 200 participants, is seen as a way for American Indian women to trade ideas on everything from protecting tribal sovereignty to winning elections.


Melanie Benjamin

Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and co-founder of the group, said she would share some of her experiences running for office, which still represents a challenge for many women.

"If we can share knowledge with others for the benefit of Indian Country, that in itself is something that would be a high accomplishment," said Benjamin, one of four women running tribes in Minnesota.

Cecelia Fire Thunder, who took office seven months ago as the first woman president of South Dakota's Oglala Sioux Tribe, said it's not only men who resist being led by women. Some women also don't have confidence in their female leaders.

Cecelia Fire Thunder

"I try to convey to women that leadership is not about gender, it's about ability," said Fire Thunder, who also will speak at the conference. "I like to think that I was chosen by the people. It was based on who I was and what I stand for, and that people trusted me."

Organizers said they plan to start regional and local chapters of the group so members can have women to turn to on a daily basis. They can also teach younger girls how to work together so future generations of women leaders will be successful.

Organizers want to collaborate with other women's groups, as well. One powerful group invited to the conference is Women in Public Policy, a bipartisan public policy group in Washington that helps women business leaders understand public policy and gain access to lawmakers.

Barbara Kasoff, that group's co-founder and chief operating officer, said she'll talk about the appropriate way to approach lawmakers, an important part of the job for many American Indian leaders. The worst time to contact a senator is when you're in trouble, she said.

Her advice: Establish a relationship. Set up a meeting. Leave behind reading material. Follow up with a thank-you note.

"They first need to have a seat at the table, then they need to learn to maximize their power and leverage," Kasoff said. "That gives the women themselves great visibility in their communities and recognition as leaders."

Masten, who is past president of the National Congress of American Indians, said she hopes the women at the conference will learn to back each other up when they run into trouble.

She recalled talking several years ago with a male tribal leader and several women. When one of the women criticized the man, another man in the tribe approached them.

"The male came up and said, 'You're not going to talk about him that way, he works very hard and he doesn't deserve for anyone to say anything about it,'" Masten said.

She said that's what she wants to have happen with women someday.

"We're the ones who give life, and we're the ones who have a vision for creating a better place for our children," Masten said. "Those are really good traits that we need to encourage and uplift and support."

Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations
43408 Oodena Drive
Onamia, MN 56359

320-532-5800 fax


Minding Manners

Barbara Walters of Television's 20/20 did a story on gender roles in Kabul, Afghanistan several years before the Afghan conflict. She noted that women customarily walked five paces behind their husbands.  She recently returned to Kabul and observed that women still walk behind their husbands. From Miss Walters' vantage point, despite the overthrow of the oppressive Taliban regime, the women now seem to walk even further back behind their husbands, and are happy to maintain the old custom. 

Miss Walters approached one of the Afghani women and asked, 'Why do you now seem happy with an old custom that you once  tried so desperately to change?'  The woman looked Miss Walters straight in the eyes, and without hesitation said, 'Land Mines.' 

Moral of the story is (no matter where you go) behind every man, there is a smart woman.