It is the season of the wild strawberry, the leader of the summer berries. The sacred plant was prayed for and acknowledged by women, who gathered in a springtime shuffle dance in responsibility to the Earth and to life itself. Now the Creator's spirit-renewing gift appears and is collected by women for nutritional, medicinal and ceremonial use. In recognition and appreciation of their original mother, indigenous women have upheld ancient ceremonies to give thanks, to feed, to heal, to renew and to prepare for another cycle of life.
Many contemporary Native women, like those described above, still practice the old ways of their people and are coming together within a larger collective that regards traditional female roles with the highest esteem. These aren't the ''gender roles'' tirelessly debated by conservatives and liberals, but balancing roles Native women performed to help their families survive and thrive. Childbearing and rearing, cooking, planting, contributing to economies and participating in tribal governance were all matters of duty for indigenous women since time immemorial and continue to be today.
Part of this larger community is WEWIN, Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations, an organization devoted to the critical leadership role indigenous women play in their families and tribal societies, as well as the national culture. Founded in 2004 by a group of female leaders to support Native women in their professional and personal lives, WEWIN has become a networking group, training ground and sounding board for Indian country's most respected stateswomen and promising leaders.
This growing organization deserves praise, not only for its positive message of empowering indigenous women, but also for the thoughtful range of support it offers. WEWIN's fourth annual conference, to be held July 29 - 31 at Mille Lacs' Grand Hinckley Casino in Minnesota, will include workshops on intergovernmental relations, community activism, public relations, finance, language revitalization and personal care. Noted leaders from all sectors of Indian society are scheduled to keynote, including former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Cecelia Fire Thunder; Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation; and Winona LaDuke, White Earth Land Recovery Project.
Finding balance is always an admirable goal; it is one central to the organization's mission. Female leaders often feel they are spreading themselves thin, said co-founder Susan Masten, Yurok. ''Spending time with other powerful, incredible women is inspiring in itself,'' she said. ''But sharing time in a supportive, nurturing environment also rejuvenates us all, making it possible for us to return home to do the work that needs to be done.'' Impacting families and communities through the lives of women has been an enduring principle of indigenous philosophy, so we have high hopes for those who participate in organizations such as WEWIN.
More evidence of the strength of Native women's leadership today exists in the inspiring book, ''Every Day is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women,'' by Mankiller (2004, Fulcrum Publishing). Some contributors focus on the outside influences that have combined to reduce women's sense of self-importance, upsetting the balance needed for a strong Indian people. Elsewhere in the book, women candidly express the value of female leadership. Faith Smith, Ojibway, notes, ''It is important to develop and feel comfortable with a uniquely Native female kind of leadership instead of one modeled after white males. ... We need to feel comfortable with what works for us, not feel embarrassed by it, or feel it is less important than other styles of leadership.'' She continues, ''Women have to negotiate all the time, from the moment we get up until we go to bed at night.'' Smith acknowledged female role models in her life, saying, ''They rolled up their sleeves and made a positive place for their family and their community.''
As for ''a woman's place'': In her dialogue with Mankiller, Angela Gonzales, Hopi, points out a misperception based on feminism's view of gender roles - that preparing food placed a woman in a subservient role. ''We do these things for the benefit of all,'' she remarks. ''It is an important role to be able to work with other women in a supportive way to provide food for the people.''
We appreciate those women who shift our perspective of indigenous womanhood from an age-based concept to one that considers love and work to be cultural responsibilities. They try to raise respectful children, practice smart governance, encourage each other and carry on the cultural traditions passed through their women's lines. Countless Native women perform simple but revolutionary acts in their everyday lives; acknowledging them is a responsibility we all share.