Breaking Gender Barriers in Tribal Politics

Only 17 percent of congressional representatives are women, and only 4 percent are women of color. But women comprise 54 percent of the voters. The discrepancies are similar at the state level. While there are no laws directly inhibiting female advancement in politics, there is a basket of cultural issues affecting everything from precinct caucus experience to fundraising success to attitudes of voters at the polls.

In Minnesota's Ojibwe communities, the political gender gap has evaporated. Today 57 percent of the top elected officials are women, including Erma Vizenor at White Earth, Karen Diver at Fond du Lac, Melanie Benjamin at Mille Lacs, and Carrie Jones at Leech Lake.

These women and others like them have run on platforms of personal integrity, education, responsible economic development, and support for tribal language and culture. Their ascendance has not come easily, but it has endured. Mille Lacs has elected female chief executive officers for more than 20 years.

As we search for ways to engineer gender equity in American politics, maybe we should examine the political culture of the first Americans, as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin did when building this great nation. Today, just like then, Native Americans may have some of the best solutions to the dilemmas of America's political culture.