WYANDOTTE, Okla. (AP) – Before becoming the Eastern Shawnee chief, Glenna Wallace served for years as the tribe’s secretary, eventually replacing her brother who was chief.
Now in public meetings, Wallace is often asked how she should be addressed, although she answers her phone with a lilting, ”This is Chief Glenna.”
”People want to know, ‘What do we call you?”’ she said, ”like ‘chief’ is a man’s word.”
In a state with 37 federally recognized tribes, five – or nearly 14 percent – are led by women.
The Sac and Fox Nation has Chief Kay Rhoads; the Eastern Shawnee recently picked Wallace as chief; Bernadette Huber is ending a two-year term as Iowa Tribe chairman; LaRue Parker is the Caddo tribal chairman; and the Absentee Shawnee recently inaugurated Jennifer Onzahwah as governor.
Most tribes are patriarchal in philosophy, Rhoads said. She tells a story about electing officers to a new tribal coalition, the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma. The positions of president and vice president were filled with men.
”I just knew they were going to make me the secretary,” Rhoads said, laughing. ”Men leaders have a tendency to stereotype in that regard.”
Female tribal leaders in Oklahoma are not a novelty. Among the first in Oklahoma, Wilma Mankiller served as Cherokee principal chief from 1987 to 1995.
Since then, female tribal leaders who have followed Mankiller have had to fight for recognition, Parker said. Parker’s tribe has its headquarters near Binger.
”Even today, I’ve seen two or three men leaders on the other side of the state who have been given a lot of attention, more so than women,” she said. ”But it seems we’re still not at that point where people recognize that women have a lot to offer.”
Parker credits women leaders for having sensitivity to traditions and less on money. At age 72, she is in her eighth year as tribal chairman.
”If you can’t hold onto your cultural identity as a tribe, then who are you?” Parker said. ”Men are more concerned with the bottom line and creating jobs. That’s important, but there’s a balance.”
Huber is near the end of a two-year term for the Iowa Tribe. She will be replaced by another female chairman. Huber said while in office, she gained the reputation as someone ”who followed the rules.”
”A lot of people are still sexist in regard to female leaders. I’ve been in groups of tribal leaders where people would assume I was some chief’s secretary,” she said. ”But that’s what we face. Many men in tribes think women should stay out of leadership.”
Many of the old attitudes toward female leadership have deep roots. Missionary ideals were sowed among tribes that women are subservient to men in terms of position and authority, Huber said.
”But in most tribal societies, women were highly regarded,” she said.
In her first months as the Eastern Shawnee chief, Wallace recalls a lesson in tribal-leader etiquette. She attended a symposium where the women leaders were dressed in traditional clothes or carried dance shawls in the official entry march, and men wore suits. The difference struck her immediately, because she had neither.
”I didn’t know I was supposed to bring a shawl, but now I do,” Wallace said. ”There’s few women in this position to talk to and ask these things.”