Woman breaks new ground in Apache leadership

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SAN CARLOS, Ariz. - A century ago, San Carlos Apaches were known as the most feared Indian tribe of the southwest.

Male succession, producing such warriors as 'The Apache Kid' or Geronimo, prevailed in leadership. But today, a woman has stepped forward to lead this proud people. Kathleen Wesley-Kitcheyan is the first woman elected chairperson of the San Carlos Apache.

"I am going to put this house in order," Kitcheyan told Indian Country Today, regarding all of the tribal concerns she believes have gone unnoticed in the past. "I am going to address key items this year such as the budget, health issues, education and social concerns."

Kitcheyan, a wife of a Vietnam veteran and mother of two, decided last year that she could not accept the continued inadequate funding for tribal programs, including education. The upcoming tribal elections crossed her mind.

At Point of Pines, a forested northern mountainous region of the reservation, Kitcheyan invited family members and close friends to a gathering. There under the secluded whispering pines, free from pressure, she announced her intention to campaign for the office of the vice-chair.

Her aunt quickly objected and argued that in order to make change for the people, the only position of power would be the chairmanship.

Kitcheyan recalled those weeks of contemplation.

"I wondered if the tribe was ready to have a woman chairperson. It took three more family meetings and hard advice from my colleagues to be convinced that I could be a contender."

During a Labor Day parade, Kitcheyan announced her candidacy. With positive support and encouraging response from men and woman alike, she pursued the candidacy.

The three months of campaigning involved raising funds, seeking volunteers to disseminate brochures, posters and signs and differentiating her campaign platform from the two male candidates.

Kitcheyan's career includes experience in the health field, social services and teaching. Her most recent position was Indian Education Program Coordinator at the San Carlos Unified School District.

Kitcheyan of the Hai' aa' ha (Sunrise) clan, and born for Tu' gai (White Water) clan, is the daughter of a former San Carlos Apache chairman, Clarence Wesley, now deceased.

"My father led by example and he wanted his children to be humble, maintain integrity, be honest and work hard," she said. When asked how her father would feel about her being elected chair, she smiled and said, "he would tell me 'Good job.'"

Wesley served as chairman in the early '50s. He is recognized for his positive political movements and honored by a memorial fair and rodeo sponsored by his descendents each spring.

In Kitcheyan's first month in office she has kept her critics at bay.

"There were 1,700 votes of confidence in me," she said. "Get on the bandwagon and let's get together to help move our Apache Tribe forward."

Just as they have done before, the winds of change blow from the sacred mountain range of the Apache people and herald new change led by a determined woman.

"I will not dwell on any or part of the negative comments directed at me being the chair because it can inhibit me from doing the job," repeated Kitcheyan, whose family and close friends experienced initial confrontations with other tribal members for their support of her.

"I am not going to sweat the small stuff. I am going to listen, learn and focus on the goals of my administration."