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Restoration of matriarchal roles is essential

Purpose and balance and self-determination must be restored in building tribal sovereignty

J. Eric Reed

Attorney and citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

Halito! I am writing again as a citizen of the Choctaw Nation and an attorney, scholar and advocate for Indigenous self-determination who has practiced federal Indian law and International Indigenous human rights for the last 25 years.

The need for full disclosure, proper transparency and inclusiveness in restoring traditional structures of self-governance that incorporates the original matriarchal leadership can create a better foundation for the Five Tribes during capacity building pursuant to the McGirt decision.

One of my colleague’s Margo Hill with Mary Ann Keogh Hoss’ published a study about centralized matriarchal leadership in Indigenous societies even under colonial structures of government.

Instead of a colonial-based leadership structure that lacks transparency and inclusion of tribal citizenry, women holding their rightful matriarchal roles in decision-making provides purpose and balance for our peoples.

Children learn from their parents about how to respect themselves and others — especially women and elders — in all of our indigenous nations. The deference and respect my Choctaw grandfather showed my grandmother every day helped me to develop, learn and respect matriarchal leadership and matrilineal roles in our heritage, traditions, culture and daily living.

Matriarchal roles focus on the good of all rather than a select few looking to enrich only themselves.

Our tribes will not be whole again as truly traditional indigenous cultures and nations until we bring balance back into the daily lives of our tribes and their citizens. This should be based upon complete restoration through gender equality.

Our tribes will be strengthened with diversity, tolerance and inclusion by reforming our Indigenous systems of government. We need to bring back organizational structures that embrace matriarchal leadership in decision-making so that our tribes may thrive and cast off colonialist misogyny in structure and thinking.

Historical matriarchal and matrilineal based tribes in North America

Across the north, south, east and west, are many matriarchal and matrilineal Indigenous societies in the U.S. that were here long before early European-Americans began stealing land, enslaving Native peoples and committing genocide through murder and disease.

While there were different manners of existence among different groups such as the Comanche who were hunter-gatherers or the Caddos who were agriculturalists, their distinct cultures were similarly characterized by social and religious systems in which a matriarchal figure held a central leadership role.

These Indigenous societies were matrilineal and/or matrilocal-based and women held valued economic, religious, and/or social positions within their tribe.

In matrilineal and matrilocal societies, women are in a position to address the needs of their communities and guide the distribution of resources with those needs — to include the wealth, food supplies, tools, livestock, property and other resources — in a balanced manner that benefited the whole community as opposed to individual self-serving greed.

When male colonizers encroached on our tribes, they were immediately appalled and offended that women held significant leadership and spiritual roles. As women participated in all matters of discussion and decision-making in their tribe’s politics, these matriarchal leaders threatened male colonizers’ egos on masculinity and religious beliefs about male dominance.

From European contact to current times, women’s leadership has been restricted and prohibited from consideration and inclusion.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA), clearly compelled Indian tribes to adopt a government approved by the U.S. but contrary to traditional forms of Native governments. The IRA reforms imposed a structural hierarchy upon tribes that limited the political participation of female members who had previously enjoyed a greater role in tribal self-governance.

The IRA was designed to undercut the unity within traditional Native societies, replaced it with permanent divisiveness, and created a grassroots Native resistance to the law that was immediate, outspoken, and sustained.

How to evolve tribal sovereignty by restoring matriarchal leader roles

When the McGirt ruling and order was published, it trumpeted a unifying clarity to all about tribal jurisdictional sovereignty and removed the yoke and shackles of unlawful state dominion from the backs of tribes across the United States.

Oklahoma immediately — as if on pre-planned cue — issued a purported agreement to return to a pre-McGirt jurisdictional arrangement. The mere notion of the leaders of the Five Tribes being a part of that deal created a tidal wave of backlash from tribal citizens who continue to call for inclusion, transparency and full disclosure with a unifying “Joint Letter” to the tribal leadership.

The letter’s signatories proposed an innovative and traditional concept of forming advisory commissions based upon original tribal leadership composition and structure which is also supported by other tribal groups, citizens and attorneys.

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These advocates encouraged the creation of a sovereignty commission from tribal citizens and scholars to provide information to the tribes and citizens on how the tribes can seamlessly transition into the sovereign role of jurisdiction. The collective recommendations proposed a structure and organization of transparency and full disclosure to all citizens in the process of capacity-building.

A clarion call has beckoned for gender balance and youth input in the framework of matrilineal seventh generation thinking and planning.

The members in any of the tribal commissions should be filled by one female and one male, as co-chairs, from each of all of the tribal districts including at large communities and two female and male youth members as well. Such composition would provide balanced recognition and inclusion of the tribal matriarchal cultures and traditions.

Students at every level should also be involved in the process via commission meetings. They can assist the chairs and others in the planning and capacity-building process to guide the transition of courts with respect to tribal jurisdictional sovereignty.

The commission members should come from diverse backgrounds and regions so that domestic violence, child welfare, crimes against women, victim services, law, tribal courts, police, mental health, emergency management, food sovereignty, education, taxation, financial management, environmental protection and other tribal regulatory areas are included, again, with respect to tribal jurisdictional sovereignty.

The importance of gender equality in evolving tribal self-government

Suzan Shown Harjo very eloquently opined the reasons why the initial State proposal was bad for tribes and especially Native women in an article discussing the issues of violence against Native women.

In recognition of National Domestic Violence Awareness last month. There is a unified intertribal statement that “in Indigenous societies, violence is not traditional.”

Mary Nagle provides insight into where colonization imposes and promotes the domination and ownership of Native women and children through misogyny, as reflected in the increasing rates of violence against Native women and lack of accountability on child adoptions since first contact. Domestic violence can be eradicated when we reclaim Indigenous values of respect and compassion, and we honor the sacredness of women and children.

Suzan Harjo’s traditional approach regarding a pathway forward is for full inclusion through gender equality, matriarchal participatory roles and complete accountability with transparency in decision making for capacity building the tribal justice systems.

The balance and purpose matriarchal approaches bring to tribal leadership

With the Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris being a woman, November 2020 calls for the greater inclusion of female leaders in our entire system of government. For indigenous women Debra Haaland and Sharice Davids this began when they were elected in 2018. They also brought modern matriarchal leadership to Congress to implement the ancient and revered Seven Generation Rule, which Congress has desperately needed but failed miserably to comprehend in a misogynistically-controlled structure.

The Seven Generation Rule has had the foundation of Indigenous values since time immemorial: a leader should never make any significant, long-lasting decisions without first considering how they will impact seven generations after you have passed from this world.

Ruth Buffalo is the first Native North Dakota legislator and advised that there is a clear “paradigm shift” happening. She has asked voters to recognize that this country is missing the wisdom of Native women.

We all need to learn more about Native women in history.

Final thoughts on moving forward as gender-balanced leadership in our tribes

The Seven Generation Rule needs to be applied to tribal capacity building and inclusion as we move forward to evolve. As Indigenous nations, it must apply to every facet of life and decision-making — for our country and all of our tribal nations.

Native women leaders and managers are reclaiming their decision-making authority to improve the lives of their nations and tribal citizens.

I want to acknowledge and honor the many other Indigenous women who are leaders in our Indigenous communities and do not receive compensation or accolades.

As Indigenous men who claim to follow traditional values and culture, it is our responsibility to stand up, support and participate in the restoration of our Native women in their matriarchal leadership roles.

Elders say, “Men should look at women in a sacred way. The men should never put women down or shame them in any way. When we have problems, we should seek their counsel. We should share with them openly. A woman has intuitive thought. She has access to another system of knowledge that few men develop. She can help us understand. We must treat her in a good way.”

As tribes, we must work to build a strong foundation of sovereignty.

This cannot be done without gender equality, diversity in ideas and complete transparency for a strong future.

J. Eric Reed worked as a fellow to Professor Robert N. Clinton who wrote and taught extensively on the issues of Criminal Jurisdiction in Indian Country in the United States. He was also a fellow to Prof. S. James Anaya who became Special Repertoire to the UN on Indigenous Peoples Rights is now Dean of the Colorado Law School. He has practiced criminal trial and appellate law for 25 years and served as Tribal Prosecutor and Special Assistant United States Attorney on the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation and Special Prosecutor on various Tribes in the United States. He lectured Native American Law at the University of Texas Dallas and other colleges. He is a Charter Member of the Native American Law Enforcement Association. Is a member of the Choctaw Bar and other Tribal Bar Associations. Board Member for the Native American Law Section of the State Bar of Texas. He is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.