Tribal Councils Make Slow Progress Toward Gender Equality
Karen Snyder has never been afraid to use her voice. She learned that from the women who raised her on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
"I come from a very long line of strong women. Grandmothers, mothers, a very strong line of women that are very outspoken," Snyder said.
That came in handy in 2016, when she was elected as one of two women on the six-person Eastern Shoshone Business Council.
"You have to be assertive as a woman in the council," Snyder said, because, with notable exceptions, the council has always been male-dominated. "And I don't say that in a judgmental way, but that's how our tribal governments have typically been comprised of."
Snyder didn't let that stop her from rising through the ranks. She spent her first few years in office boning up on federal Indian policy and learning to hold her own with state and federal officials. By last fall, she was the natural choice to replace the Eastern Shoshone Business Council's outgoing vice chairman, and then to take on the chairman's duties when he took medical leave soon after. Then, the pandemic hit.
"A lot of that, again, landed on my plate," Snyder said. "I've really had to step up my game substantially over the course of the last year."
She took the lead in coordinating the tribe's response. That meant working with leaders of the neighboring Northern Arapaho Tribe to establish a stay-at-home order on the Wind River Reservation and allocating federal coronavirus aid.
"It's not like I was power-hungry or territorial, I just felt like we had to get something done," Snyder said.
But when the tribe's primary election came around in September, Snyder was ousted after six male candidates received more votes and won spots on the general election ballot. She can't be sure why she wasn't re-elected, but if she had to guess, she said it likely had to do with her gender.
"I don't know if our tribal communities are actually ready for woman leadership," Snyder said.
When it comes to gender parity, tribal governments have made more progress than statehouses or U.S. Congress. Still, women remain underrepresented, holding fewer than a third of seats on tribal councils in the Mountain West.
Dr. Tarissa Spoonhunter is a professor of American Indian studies and tribal leadership at Central Wyoming College. She says that like local, state and federal governing bodies, tribal councils have made slow progress towards equal representation.
"There's a little change, but it's still the 'good old boys club,'" she said.
It hasn't always been that way. Prior to European contact, war, and forced relocation, Indigenous women had far more power and agency than their European counterparts. Many tribal communities are traditionally matriarchal. But with colonization came new ideas about gender roles.
"The federal government set the template," Spoonhunter said, referring to the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, under which many tribes adopted constitutions drafted by the federal government. "And when [the feds] came to meet, they came to meet with the men because Western society is more male-dominated."
She said the work of contemporary tribal councils matters a lot in the day-to-day lives of tribal citizens, often more than what goes on within state and federal government.
"Healthcare, tribal resource management, environmental issues, economic development – these are the kinds of decisions that tribal leaders have to make," Spoonhunter said.
So it's important, she said, for councils to contain a variety of voices and perspectives.
"You have to find that balance," she said. "And you're starting to see that in some tribes, such as the Northern Cheyenne. The roles are kind of changing."
In November in Montana, Northern Cheyenne women swept the tribal election, securing the presidency, vice residency, and five district representative seats by wide margins. Northern Cheyenne citizen Dr. Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear spoke at their inauguration.
"We need hope as Cheyenne people," Rodriguez-Lonebear said during the ceremony. "And who better to bring us hope than our matriarchs? Our life-givers, grandmothers, mothers, aunties, sisters, that is who we are inaugurating today to lead the Cheyenne nation in a time of great turmoil."
They were sworn in as the Northern Cheyenne battle an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, and after a former tribal president pleaded guilty to federal charges that he defrauded tribal departments. Serena Weatherelt, the tribe's new vice president, said the community was ready for a change.
"One quality that all the ladies [who were elected] probably have is the ability to remember that it's the people that put us in these spots," Weatherelt said. "They have confidence in us. They want us to work together. I think we'll be able to make change in our government and unite our nation."
Another of the tribe's new leaders, 23-year-old Silver Little Eagle, represents another group that's underrepresented in tribal politics: young people. She said she faced some negativity on the campaign trail, but drew strength from the story of Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a young Cheyenne warrior woman who rescued her brother during the Battle of Rosebud.
"My auntie kind of correlated her story to my own leadership journey, she said, 'Do you think she waited to save him? Or do you think she just did it?'" Little Eagle said.
During the pandemic, Little Eagle said compassion is what's most needed from the tribal government, and that the women who've been elected can provide that.
"Our people have been patriarchal for the last 100 years and men always lead the battle. But I think now is just a time of filling in the missing pieces of our government," she said.
Back on the Wind River Reservation, Karen Snyder may have lost her council seat. But she was the first person the new council called to head up the Eastern Shoshone Tribe's ongoing COVID-19 response. As she takes on that role, Snyder said she's proud of how she conducted herself in office. She hopes that by being outspoken and decisive, she showed other Shoshone women a path to leadership.
"I would hope so, that maybe there's a young girl or another woman that had said, 'Hey, she stood her ground in an environment that historically and customarily was meant for a male,'" Snyder said. "I would hope that somewhere along the line, one or two people saw me as a role model."
This story has been updated to correct Silver Little Eagle's age.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.