Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Feminist Nations? A Study of Native American Women in Southwestern Tribal Politics

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Feminist Nations? A Study of Native American Women in Southwestern Tribal Politics

Article excerpt

Tremendous variation exists in the politics and governance of the over 550 federally recognized American Indian tribes. For example, women are barred from participating in tribal politics in most Pueblo Nations, yet in other Southwestern tribes, they are political leaders. Using data from personal interviews with officials from 21 Indian Nations in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah, I examine the role that they, as women, play in tribal politics; why they participate; the positions they hold; the constraints they face; their political goals, policy priorities, and strategies; and the institutional and social conditions that enable women to serve in their tribe's political leadership. The findings reveal substantial diversity among the Southwestern Indian Nations studied, yet considerable similarities exist among the leaders' paths to leadership, policy priorities, and political goals in tribal government.

As their presence in tribal politics has grown, the role and influence of American Indian women has increasingly gained prominence in the governance of Indian nations. This is particularly evident in the Southwestern United States where Apache, Shoshone, Paiute, and Navajo women, for example, hold key policymaking positions within their nations' executive, legislative, and judicial branches. At the same time, however, the majority of the 20 Pueblo nations prohibit women from participating in tribal politics. Despite their common status as sovereign nations and domestic dependents of the federal government, tremendous variation exists among the forms of governance and political practices of Indian nations in the United States.

This study explores the role of Southwestern Native American women leaders in tribal governance and women's rights to participate in tribal politics. Using data from personal interviews with officials from 21 Indian nations in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah I address the following research questions:

What are the characteristics of women in tribal leadership?

What role do these leaders play in tribal politics? Why do they participate?

What are their political goals? What are their policy priorities?

What sorts of constraints to participation do women face?

What institutional or social conditions enable women to hold formal positions of political leadership within their tribes?

By studying the political participation of American Indian women leaders we can gain a greater understanding of their political goals, their contributions to their communities, and the conditions that lead to women's equal and legitimate involvement in tribal politics. We now examine the literature on women in Native American politics, followed by a brief history of their role in native societies in the Southwest.


A growing body of research on women of color has added important knowledge to the literature on Native American women and politics. American Indian women have a rich history of political involvement in the life of their communities. Their struggle for policy reforms to attain tribal sovereignty, cultural preservation, and control over their native lands and natural resources, however, are unique to their status as colonized indigenous peoples. Historically, leaders such as Sarah Winnemucca, Alice Brown Davis, and Gertrude Bonnin have challenged federal, state, and tribal authorities to formulate and/or reform policy for the benefit of their peoples (Ford 1990; Jaimes 1992; Jaimes-Guerrero 1997b). Since the 1970s, an increasing number of women have held a variety of elected or appointed positions in their tribal governments. The transition of some leaders from community activist to tribal official has been documented among the Salt River Pima and Maricopa (Hoikkala 1995) and the Seminoles (Kersey and Banaan 1995) as well as among several New Mexico tribes (Prindeville 2000). In some Indian nations women are being elected as chief executive officers where they serve as Chair, President, or Governor of the Tribal Council or Tribal Business Council. …

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