WASHINGTON - A growing number of female Indians from Montana are wondering whether some of their male colleagues and leaders are supporting Sen. Barack Obama over Sen. Hillary Clinton largely due to his gender.
''There's definitely a division among Indian people in terms of male and female support,'' said Democratic state Sen. Carol C. Juneau. ''It's a really interesting division. And I wonder if Indian people are seeing it in other states.''
Over the past month, three high-ranking male Native officials who work in both Montana state and tribal governments have told Indian Country Today during background political conversations that they view Clinton in a derogatory manner. Additionally, one said he didn't believe that the senator from New York could ''hold her own'' against Sen. John McCain, while another added that he just ''couldn't see'' a woman leading the U.S. out of the Iraq war.
Just as in America at large, sexism in Indian country is still alive and well.
''I think there is a trickle-down patriarchy that's a part of the coerced assimilation process that's been put upon Native American tribes,'' said M.A. Jaimes-Guerrero, a gender and Native studies expert at San Francisco State University. ''There is a lot of chauvinism, not just on reservations, but in urban Indian populations as well.''
Whether sexism will play a role in Montana's Native vote remains to be seen - and whether it can be accurately measured based on voting patterns is another thing altogether. The state holds its Democratic primary June 3.
Strong female Indian tribal leaders, including Cecelia Fire Thunder, the first female elected leader of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, have long argued that females with power often find themselves on the receiving end of resentment from males - sometimes especially in Indian country.
Fire Thunder was ultimately impeached in 2006 by the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council as a result of her support of a plan to create a Planned Parenthood clinic on tribal lands. The council also banned abortions on tribal lands, and two male leaders have since succeeded Fire Thunder.
Indian leaders note, however, that many tribes before colonization were matriarchal, and some continue to be to this day. Today, approximately 25 percent of tribal leaders are female, according to data gathered by the National Congress of American Indians.
Back in Montana, it's not as if all Indian men are supporting Obama over Clinton. And many of Montana's Indian women are supporting Obama instead of Clinton, too. Montana state Rep. Margarett Campbell, for instance, has said privately that she is supporting the senator from Illinois but can't officially endorse him until after Montana holds its primary, in accordance with state party rules.
Across Indian country, many female Indian leaders, including Democratic superdelegates Kalyn Free, of Oklahoma, and Laurie Weahkee, of New Mexico, are staunch supporters of Obama.
But Juneau, who's of Hidatsa/Mandan descent, said she believes gender has indeed played a big role among Indians in her state at least.
Juneau said she's supporting Clinton largely due to her health care plan, as well as what she calls ''Hillary's ability to win in the fall,'' and Clinton's grasp of tribal sovereignty.
''I think she has the experience and the toughness to do it. She's the candidate who is strong enough to implement new policies that will benefit Indians.''
Geri Small, president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, recently made headlines by expressing her support for Clinton, despite poll reports that indicate Clinton is trailing Obama in the state.
''Although the Democratic Party has two excellent candidates seeking the nomination, in my first term as tribal president, Sen. Clinton and I worked together on tribal issues in conjunction with the National Congress of American Indians,'' she said in a statement released May 8. ''From that personal experience, I trust her judgment and leadership and am compelled to endorse her. Hillary has the experience, heart and courage to address the tough issues facing this country.''
Angela Russell, a former state legislator and member of the Crow Tribe; Julia Doney, president of the Fort Belknap Community Council; Norma Bixby, a current state representative; and several other female Indian leaders in the state have also endorsed Clinton.
Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, a state legislator and a councilman for the Chippewa Cree Tribe, said he doesn't know why some people are making Obama's success with Natives in Montana about gender.
''It is unfortunate that some may have turned this race into a gender issue,'' Windy Boy said. ''[Obama] doesn't come from a political dynasty; he doesn't come from the same-old, same-old line of politics like a lot of politicians.''
Windy Boy, for one, said Obama's gender has nothing to do with his decision to support him. ''I can't speak for anybody else who brings it up,'' he said.
Meanwhile, Juneau and other female leaders are left wondering why Obama, a person with much less experience in the Senate and in national leadership than Clinton, has resounded so strongly with Indian male leaders.
''It just hasn't been talked about,'' Juneau said. ''And I haven't seen anyone really want to talk about it.''