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Paving a new road

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Female Native leaders strive for stronger representation

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Diane Enos was a less-than-interested student in high school before a long and winding road started her on a journey that brought her to the pinnacle of power in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

The road was Highway 101, and Enos opposed it. Fighting against the road, Enos grew intensely interested in the political process and went on to law school. She graduated in 1992.

Today, ''the 101'' helps carry business to the SRPMIC; and as the tribe's president, she is focused on growing the SRPMIC economy.

Enos gave the welcome address for the Heart of the American Indian Women's Network Leadership Conference, held in Scottsdale April 7 - 8. Its focus was on economic growth.

The SRPMIC operates two successful casinos, as well as a golf course, a telecommunications company and various other ventures.

''As a matter of survival, you can't just sit back and put all your eggs in one basket,'' Enos said. ''We try to keep a vision for the future; we look to take care of the people of the future.''

With all the work that goes into being a tribal leader, Enos and conference attendees share another burden: becoming accepted as tribal leaders.

This is the 19th annual conference, said Heart Network Chairman Mevelyn Kirkpatrick, Chickasaw.

The group began as a way for female leaders to support each other, and to build bridges between the tribal nations. Many female leaders weren't getting a lot of assistance from their male counterparts, so the network was formed as a support system, she explained.

''It's a way to get together and share thoughts and ideas, and see how different tribes handle different problems.''

GloJean Todacheenie is in her first term as a Navajo Nation Council delegate, and one day she hopes to see a stronger representation of women on the council. She is one of nine women currently serving as delegates.

There is no question who Navajo women have to thank for getting a foothold in tribal politics, she said: ''Annie Wauneka paved the way for us.''

Wauneka, daughter of the last Navajo chief, Henry Chee Dodge, was the first woman elected to the Navajo council. She won national recognition for her efforts to improve health and living conditions for her people, and was the first American Indian to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Though women have held leadership positions within the SRPMIC, Enos is only the second woman to be elected president.

In 2006, the candidacy of Lynda Lovejoy sparked national interest as she challenged incumbent Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. Some older men openly said they would never vote for a female presidential candidate.

Similar sentiments made the rounds of the Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island in the late 1990s when tribal Councilman Paula Dove Jennings became the first woman in 100 years to seek to lead the 2,000-member tribe.

Indian women have always held important positions within their tribes, said Sherri Shaffer of the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe, but over time, Western biases intruded on Indian institutions.

Myriad difficulties face American Indians today, but none is a problem that can't be solved by working together, said network board member Grace Goodeagle, Citizen Band Potawatomi/Quapaw and a former Quapaw chairman.

''The solution is innate. It's inside us and we have to find a way to bring it out,'' she said.

Because of previous experience as a tribal administrator, Goodeagle said she didn't face many difficulties becoming involved in politics.

Chickasaw leaders had always been men, so there were some issues when the first woman became chairman, Kirkpatrick said.

There was some resentment over women vying for leadership positions, but ''that's not how it was years ago,'' she said; as with many other tribes, the women played a central role in the Chickasaws' tribal affairs.

Rena Duncan, another Chickasaw female leader, served 15 years as a legislator - which is what the Chickasaws call their council representatives.

She had been executive director for the tribe's cultural resources department, and was the first woman to serve as secretary on the Legislature.

In addition to being a woman, Duncan said she was also one of the youngest legislators.

''A double whammy,'' she laughed.

But Rena's family has a long history of involvement in Chickasaw affairs. Her grandfather from five generations back was Levi Colbert, who was chief during the time the tribe was relocated from the Southeast to Oklahoma - then known as ''Indian Territory.''

Her family has also provided other women leaders; Duncan said her mother helped draft the tribe's constitution.

The Chickasaws have accepted women leaders, Duncan said. When she first joined the Legislature, there were three women and 10 men; that has practically flipped around with the makeup of the current Legislature, she said.

More and more opportunities to pursue leadership positions are available for women, and they need to ''take the risk,'' Todacheenie said. After all, she said, women have always been the backbone of Native society.

''They were the hands that rocked the cradleboard,'' Todacheenie said.