Beloved Women: Nurturing the Sacred Fire of Leadership from an American Indian Perspective

By Awe, Tarrell; Portman, Agahe et al. | Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Beloved Women: Nurturing the Sacred Fire of Leadership from an American Indian Perspective


Awe, Tarrell, Portman, Agahe, Garrett, Michael Tlanusta, Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD


We are a matriarchal society. Even our language honors the women. It is a female language. When we dance, the men dance on the outside of the circle. The inside of the circle is to honor the women. When you dance to the ceremonial sounds of the Earth, you are tickling Mother Earth, and giving her joy for all the things she gives us to stay alive.

   Kanaratitake (Lorraine Canoe), Mohawk
   (as cited in McFadden, 1994, p. 24)

Across the United States, there are more than 558 federally recognized and several hundred state-recognized Native American nations (Russell, 1998). Given the wide-ranging diversity of this population of approximately 2.3 million people, it is important to understand that any discussion related to cultural aspects of American Indian people is, in fact, a discussion encompassing the vastness and essence of these sovereign nations and differing individuals. Within this context, however, there are some universal underlying values that permeate what can be considered a Native worldview and existence. One foundational value, leadership from an American Indian perspective, is viewed as a shared vision and responsibility. Although there may be individual or tribal differences among familial groups, this perspective is a consistent cultural view. American Indian governance is filled not with the romantic notion of male "chiefs" as wise, supreme, all-knowing grandfathers but with tribal councils or committees consisting of multiple leaders (male and female) holding positions of leadership, most often with a group of (elder) women holding the ultimate power for decisions that affect the entire tribe. By necessity, leadership is a shared vision. American Indian women have been consistently involved in leadership throughout indigenous history. Their leadership provides a strong, nurturing influence passed down from generation to generation. In mainstream

U.S. society, this type of leadership style is recognized among contemporary authors of leadership manuals as relational and is attributed to the leadership style of women (Raelin, 2003). Similarly, American Indian perspectives on leadership are relational and parallel the concepts presented by Jean Miller (1991) and Judith Jordan (1997) in relational-cultural theory. A "crosswalk" of these two perspectives is appropriate to the evolution of a better understanding of the essence of American Indian leadership, as defined by the power of women, and of the potential implications for leadership and mentoring needs of women in the counseling profession.

As a rule, counseling professionals are taught to rely heavily on theories and interventions steeped in a Western, masculinized worldview. This article provides an alternative view of leadership among women; the specific purposes of the article are to build a bridge between the American Indian perspectives of nurturing leadership and relational-cultural theory and to contribute important leadership knowledge to the counseling profession to encourage leadership among women (as students, clients, and professionals) in counseling situations.

"I Will Bring Back the Fire"

Many tribes speak of the Circle of Life or the Web of Life, which is truly an appropriate description of the complex set of relationships in which all people live. The world, whether personal, interpersonal, natural, or universal, is like a huge spider web in which each strand is dependent on every other strand for existence and for balance. Picture a spider web glistening in the morning light. That is Native Americans' Circle of Life. As a matter of fact, the old Cherokee legend describing the First Fire revolves around the sacredness of little sister, the Water Spider, and the leadership she provided for all living beings during a critical time of need.

   In the beginning, a long, long time ago, there was no fire and
   the world was cold. So the Red Thunder Beings in the Above
   World sent their lightning and put a fire in the bottom of a
   hollow sycamore tree that grew on a small island. … 

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