Walking the Talk: The Balancing Act of Native Women Tribal College Presidents

Volume 26, No. 4 - Summer 2015
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American Indian women account for over half of tribal college and university (TCU) presidents. And they are no strangers to positions of authority and respect. Indeed, many tribes follow matrilineal lines when establishing clan membership and participation. Today’s Native women are carving out new public roles for themselves, providing leadership to their communities and families as well as their colleges.

For many tribes, Native women are vitally important to tribal structure and organization—whether they are recognized or not. Native women often serve as gatekeepers of their nation’s stories, economic systems, kinship lines, and sacred beliefs. By gleaning knowledge from tribal traditions and incorporating that knowledge into the present, American Indian women in leadership positions at TCUs are establishing new ways of guiding their people.


Verna Fowler has been president of College of Menominee Nation since its inception in 1993, making her one of the longestserving TCU presidents.


Native women serving as TCU presidents embrace their leadership responsibilities and welcome the chance to be accountable. As tribal leaders overseeing multifaceted institutions with a variety of stakeholders, they must listen to and engage everyone present. This is not an empty act of sentimentality or sensitivity—listening to others’ perspectives can be a sharp tool in the art of negotiation and a learned skill that many Native women are finding works to their advantage. “I believe women pay attention to detail and perspectives while men are more attuned to recognition or acknowledgement of their role in getting something done. Aesthetics and ‘getting it done’ are female attributes, while males are more autocratic and single-minded,” states Cynthia Lindquist (Spirit Lake Dakota), president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College.

Verna Fowler (Menominee/Stockbridge-Munsee), president of College of Menominee Nation, echoes Lindquist’s insight: “I would expect a woman generally pays more attention to detail, and women are more intuitive than males. I would expect them to be more nurturing.” However, attributes such as listening and respecting another’s viewpoint must be tempered with the knowledge that every tribe has its own cultural traditions and heritage. “We (TCUs) are separate, distinct entities, mostly chartered by our respective tribes,” Lindquist reminds us.

While all college presidents are held accountable to the community which upholds the institution, there are particular challenges that TCUs and their presidents face. For one, TCUs are expected to deliver a culturally relevant education to their students. However, they must also work at educating the tribal populace of non-students about oversight issues and maintaining autonomy. As Diné College president Maggie George (Diné) explains, “Over the years there has always been the challenge of trying to maintain our autonomy from our tribal government; in other words keeping the [college] separate and our tribal government from being involved in the dayto- day college operation.”

Some of that work entails long and complex conversations about what it means to be an institution of higher education. Often, members of a TCU board of regents approach challenges as they would in a K-12 school. But there is a vast difference between a primary or secondary school and a college or university. George asserts that board members can be taught how to delineate by “actively engaging them—basically, allowing them an over sight role so that they don’t overstep boundaries and try to micromanage.”


Cynthia Lindquist is president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College and serves as chair of the advisory board for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Another tactic that George has found very useful is to shape college bylaws and to continually refer back to them. The wording of the bylaws has to be accessible so that everyone has a clear understanding of the tribe’s charter and the college’s autonomy. Such work has “entailed a lot of heavy lifting, educating, and ongoing nurturing,” George admits.


Another challenge facing Native women who are TCU presidents is how to interconnect and communicate their tribal values with expected educational goals. To begin with, TCUs must stay one step ahead of mainstream higher education institutions in order to be competitive and viable. Colleges and universities are— regardless of their esteemed place in society—businesses. The difference comes in the level and scope of a TCU’s commitment, which, says George, “requires us to be cognizant of our cultural ways, including our identity through our clans. Commitment to our clans helps us to articulate our interconnectedness and to maintain balance and humility.”

Such ideals can be achieved through a woman’s varied roles. “As a woman tribal college president I [must] wear several hats interchangeably,” George says. In many Native cultures, women have always been respected as nurturers. Conversely, in the dominant, mainstream culture, women have had to be much more forceful if their voices are going to be heard. “However,” George continues, “the modes vary depending on who your audience is at the time. Communication comes down to your individuality and how you approach things based on your experiences and your education.”

Lindquist echoes this thought: “As a Dakota win (woman), I believe I bring my values and knowledge of being Dakota into functioning as a TCU president.” Assuming the role of TCU president can also create an almost obligatory compartmentalization of oneself, leading one to “live in various dimensions,” as Lindquist puts it. In her world, she must shift between her status as TCU president, mother/grandmother, community member, and Dakota woman.

For Fowler, incorporating traditional tribal values into her leadership role was surprisingly simple. “My staff found that it is [easy] to assume control over our administration, organization, students, and curriculum,” she says. She uses the example of how the college has sought to promote American Indian cultural awareness and preservation. The activities they chose to accomplish this goal were theirs alone. “What we chose to include in our curriculum was our decision. The objectives and measureable means to illustrate success were determined by us,” she maintains. The benefits from this forthright attitude can send positive messages and energetic affirmation of autonomy and initiative to a tribal college’s community.

Fowler also incorporates her tribal values into the Western modes of leadership by holding meetings that are open to students, faculty, staff, and the entire tribal community. “I provide the opportunity to be heard, committee participation, inclusiveness, an open-door policy, attentive listening, being accessible and approachable, and calling forth employees who have particular skill sets for a particular job or work.”

As Lindquist notes, all of these steps create a highly efficient system that allows for “great flexibility to be who and what we are—a tribal community college.” She adds, however, that such a philosophy does not mean or imply a lack of accountability or transparency: “We are stable organizations who nurture and develop the potential of the people.”


Native women who are TCU presidents seem to walk in two worlds and draw from deep wellsprings of tradition. For Lindquist, “balancing the various roles is challenging, but for a Dakota win, as long as I am rooted in who I am (self-respect), that challenge is minimized as the roles interact to make the ‘whole.’ Family always comes first and is the foundation for identity that is hopefully based on the Dakota values of respect, compassion, fortitude, generosity, humility, honesty, and wisdom.” Balancing these roles is critical to personal health and well-being. “Walking the talk is a good way to explain it,” she continues. “We are educators and thus must exhibit the values we are trying to teach. Business or leadership roles should encompass or represent who I am as a mother and grandmother.”


Maggie George serves as president of Diné College—the first TCU in the United States.

For Fowler, tribal history is always present and alive. “Ever since Menominee termination and restoration, the majority of tribal legislature members have been female. Many, many hundreds of years ago, Menominee were matriarchal,” she explains. Historically, the Menominee differentiated between chief and clan leaders; the women were the clan leaders, and one of their duties was the selection of a chief. But men in Menominee culture weren’t just chiefs and warriors, Fowler elaborates. “Indian males, as opposed to their non-Indian counterparts are more helpful around the home, doing household tasks, cooking and parenting. As my mother, whose first language was Menominee, would tell us: ‘There is no such thing as men’s work or women’s work, it is all just work, so get busy and do it!’”

At Diné College, making sure that students recognize and acknowledge their four clans is paramount. They are taught that when they go out into the world they are not just representing themselves; they are all interrelated, and this knowledge should guide their behavior. “Since clans are matrilineal, Diné identity is recognized through our mothers, our fathers, and our paternal and maternal grandparents,” says George. “I work to teach our young people through my actions that if you feel lost, go back to the center of yourself, be passionate about what you do, and be humble—you are just a human being.”

In contrast to the Menominees and the Diné, the Dakotas do not have a historical precedent for women leadership. But there has been change. “We have had several female leaders (chairperson or council reps)— this is a newer phenomenon. The Dakota believed in and understood male/female balance. It is in nature and all around us and is a complimentary trait for life,” Lindquist explains. “The men had a role as did the women, and these roles were significant to the maintaining of life. Most chiefs were male; however, the women were heard and had a voice in the process of identifying the chief.”

Whether Dakota, Menominee, or Navajo, the path to leadership for many Native women is rife with challenges. There are guideposts, however. These markers may be invisible from a casual glance, but they are there nevertheless. The easiest summation of how a Native woman can excel at something that demands full attention to complex, interconnected, and finely detailed tasks, is to become an expert at balancing. The balancing act takes a fair amount of self-examination and the ability to fully recognize who one is as a human being and how much one can actually accomplish. The admission that a TCU president can only do so much without the help of her staff, as well as her tribe, demands honesty. “The important aspect is for college employees to be sincerely intent on improving the college and being brutally honest with themselves,” Fowler notes. “There is nothing to be gained in playing games.”

By placing herself in that assessment with other college employees, Fowler unmistakably aligns herself with the common person. Women leaders, and particularly Native women, take seriously their roles in guiding their people through the 21st century. There is no self-aggrandizing, only the elegant and graceful parlay between those in positions of leadership and those they gratefully acknowledge and willingly serve.

Barbara Ellen Sorensen served as senior editor of Winds of Change magazine and writes on American Indian education.

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