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Leading the way

WASHINGTON – There’s Yvette Roubideaux leading the IHS, Kim Teehee serving as a top adviser to President Obama on Native Affairs at the White House, Jodi Gillette as a deputy associate director in the intergovernmental affairs office, Mary McNeil, the new deputy assistant secretary for civil rights at the USDA, and Hilary Tompkins – the first Native American solicitor of the Interior Department.

“We’ve just been so tickled to hear the appointments as they’ve come in,” said Montana Sen. Carol C. Juneau, D-Browning. “We’d get a big smile and say, ‘Yep, there’s another Native woman in charge.’”


Photo Courtesy Office Rep. Dale Kildee Kim Teehee serves as a top adviser to President Obama on Native Affairs at the White House.

Indeed, Native American women are doing well by President Obama. Of the top six high-profile positions Obama and his staff have filled with Native people, five have gone to women. BIA head Larry EchoHawk, Pawnee, is the only man in the mix.

And there may be more Indian women leaders to come. Mary Smith, of Cherokee heritage, has been nominated to head the tax division at the Department of Justice. She’s currently awaiting confirmation.

Juneau, of Hidatsa/Mandan descent, sees a big opportunity for successful Natives on the national level to become role models for Indian youth, male and female.

“It’s up to all of us who choose to go into public service to see that the young ones who come after us are educated and are ready for great responsibilities.”

Heather Dawn Thompson, president of the National Native American Bar Association and new partner at D.C. law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, echoed the thought, saying the appointments have already had dramatic effects on young Indian folks she’s observed taking part in internships and other programs in the nation’s capital.

“The Native students here in D.C. for the summer are so proud of these women. They can’t get enough of spending time with them and learning from them.”


Indian Country Today Yvette Roubideaux is the director of the IHS.

Thompson, Cheyenne River Sioux, also said the appointees exemplify “the best of Indian country” and deserve recognition, regardless of their gender.

“We clearly have a lot of men and women who are highly qualified. And many Native men or women would have done well in these positions.”

Still, Thompson believes some of the “uniquely female experiences” of each woman will help them serve Indian country well from within the U.S. government.

Juneau believes the appointments alleviate sexism that she still perceives in America at large, including within tribal leadership.

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She blames Western colonization mentalities and the conquering forces of some religions for partially adding to the problem for tribes, some of which were traditionally matriarchal.

“These are women who are stepping out and taking on the risk of being involved in a big way on the national level,” Juneau said. “They are examples of strength. Now we need more of them to be doing it on the tribal level.”

Only one out of the eight tribes in Montana is headed by a woman, she noted.

It’s a widespread scenario across the country. According to data gathered by the National Congress of American Indians, approximately one quarter of all current tribal leaders are women.

“I think the steps that Obama has taken in terms of the role of Native women is going to go a long way to demonstrate to tribal leadership that women have a part to play,” Juneau said.


Photo courtesy United Tribes Technical College Jodi Gillette serves as a deputy associate director in the intergovernmental affairs office.

“Women should be equal partners in the individual tribal government systems. And now, male leaders will have to meet with these female leaders when they travel to Washington. It’s going to open a lot of eyes and carry a very strong message to Indian people.”

Rebecca Tsosie, director of the Indian Legal Program at Arizona State University, said she has been researching trends that suggest increasing numbers of Native women who want to and are choosing to get involved in leadership positions.

She’s noticed women who become active are often promoted by their families and communities.

“Yvette Roubideaux probably didn’t grow up thinking, ‘Hey, I want to be the head of IHS one day,’” Tsosie said.

“But I know for a fact that Yvette comes from a leadership family – her family has been in tribal leadership and is very educated. “If I had to make a guess, I’d say that that kind of background helps some members of this generation of women to be willing to take on increasingly important leadership roles.”

Tsosie suspects more Native women will choose to become leaders on the national, state, local and tribal levels in the future.

Juneau agreed, noting that her daughter, Denise Juneau, was recently elected as state superintendent of public instruction in Montana.

“I’m so proud of her, just as I am proud of all these strong women in the Obama administration. They’re all going to do great things. I can feel it.”