Native women leaders take part in 'Funny, You Don't Look Indian'

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ATLANTA - Five Native women will participate in a panel discussion called ''Funny, You Don't Look Indian'' at the 4th Annual Leadership and Women of Color Conference, to be hosted by Spelman College.

Beverly Wright, former chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah); Brenda Commander, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians; Kim Hazard, council member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe; Elizabeth Neptune, council member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe (Indian Township); and Sharon Miller, public relations director of the Alabama Coushatta Tribe of Texas, will represent American Indian women at the conference May 8 - 10 at the Cobb Galleria Center.

The event brings together multigenerational people from private and public sectors to engage in dialogue about women in the work place, exchange ideas and share best practices to promote multicultural leadership.

This year's conference has been developed around the theme of ''Building Bridges: Issues, Practices and Solutions.''

The ''Funny, You Don't Look Indian'' panel is Wright's brainchild. She has attended the conference for the past two years, and recruited this year's panel members.

''My daughter and I went one year, and the second year they honored me at their luncheon as a Native American woman leader. What I found out in talking with Spelman College President Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum was that Native American women were under-represented at the Women of Color Conference. So I told her that I would, hopefully, bring more Native women to the next conference,'' Wright told Indian Country Today from her home on Martha's Vineyard.

Wright left tribal politics three years ago after serving as chair for 15 years. She has set up two businesses - Soaring Feathers LLC, a consulting firm, and Native Digital Smoke Signals, a communications company that provides video conferencing.

Although Wright has presented various workshops, this will be the first panel she will lead.

''I thought that 'Funny, You Don't Look Indian' would be a good name because people still have this image of what an Indian should look like - the stereotype - so I just thought it would a catchy name to get to some serious issues,'' Wright said.

The actual shape of the panel discussion has not yet been determined. Wright said she sent out a list of topics for panel members to discuss. The topics include facing and handling stereotypes, cultural differences between tribal nations and the dominant society, cultural differences among tribal nations, social practices and protocols of tribal nations, the importance of cultural competency and personal solutions for everyday living.

Wright said she has experienced the ''funny, you don't look Indian'' syndrome, but her response these days is different than in earlier times.

''I think as I've gotten older I try to respond and give them an education, whereas maybe in my 20s and 30s, I was very flippant and kind of sassy; but as you get older, you learn that's not the way to go,'' Wright said.

The ''funny, you don't look Indian'' syndrome is not necessarily racism, Wright said.

''It's ignorance, though I think ignorance is a hard word; but if all you know is the Indian or Native American you see on TV, that's all you know. Unless you live in a state where there's a Native American presence, there's no chance for you to get acquainted with Native American people. You could see someone on the street and never know they're Native American. We're out there and sometimes we blend in and sometimes we don't,'' Wright said.

Neptune agrees that it is ''ignorance more than anything'' that leaves members of the dominant culture puzzled about Natives.

''I still encounter people who ask if we live in tipis, as if we would choose to do that in the 21st century. It's pretty scary when you think about it - that people know so little about the people around them, their neighbors. For tribal people, that's not the way we're ever raised or brought up,'' Neptune said.

One of the conference organizers also suggested to Wright that the panel discuss the Cherokee Nation's recent vote to revoke the membership of freed slaves. That conversation will inevitably encompass a discussion about tribal sovereignty, Wright said.

Valeria Red-Horse, a member of the Texas Band of Cherokee and founder of the Red-Horse Financial Group, will be honored as a representative of Native women leaders at the conference this year.

For more information, including a list of corporate sponsors, go to www.spelmanwomenofcolorconf.com.