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Native women long held political power on American soil — until white people got here

Men have had their day at the tip-top. Having Native women in office can help protect our shared future far better.
Image: Debra Haaland speaks in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on June 6, 2018.
Debra Haaland speaks in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on June 6, 2018.Morgan Lee / AP file

The U.S. Congress has been far too white and far too male for far too long. But that’s all about to change.

Come January 2019, a wave of minorities — people of color, women, and women of color — will march into the Capitol and rattle those hallowed halls with their voices of logic and reason. It will probably make a few of the good ol’ establishment Republicans there quite uncomfortable. Good.

And while women, and particularly women of color, in politics may not be a time-honored tradition in the white, European male system of government, for the indigenous people who began human history on this land, women have been calling the shots for literally thousands of years.

You wouldn’t know that if you watched Hollywood flicks and cartoons about Native people that, to this day, portray a stereotypical male chief grunting and Tonto-talking to eloquent, albeit naïve, encroaching white invaders while a Native woman somewhere in the distance plays some subservient role. But that wasn’t the truth of our history, not for my people and not for a great many others.

Even now, there remain plenty of matriarchal and matrilineal indigenous societies in the U.S. that were here long before early European-Americans began marauding and murdering and taking of everything on which they could lay their hands.

In fact, through our oral traditions, Natives learn that when white men blundered this way, they were immediately aghast and even offended that Native women held significant political and spiritual roles and participated in all manner of dialogue and decision-making. Some white envoys even refused to participate in political discussions with Natives if any women were present.

An elder told me not too long ago that these white men didn’t consider Native men as “men” because Native women held such prominent roles and titles, which the white men believed diminished masculinity.

“They hardly considered any of us human for that matter, let alone ‘men,’” he added.

Now, only 94 years after Natives were granted U.S. citizenship and for the first time in the Congress’ 229-year-old history, two Native women — Debra Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas — will be on the Hill to implement the ancient and revered Seven Generation Rule, which Congress has desperately needed yet failed miserably to comprehend.

Image: Sharice Davids talks to supporters at her campaign office in Overland Park, Kansas, on Oct. 22, 2018.
Sharice Davids talks to supporters at her campaign office in Overland Park, Kansas, on Oct. 22, 2018.Charlie Riedel / AP file

The Seven Generation Rule is simple and has been at the foundation of indigenous values since time immemorial: Do not make any significant, long-lasting decisions without first considering how they will impact seven generations after you’re dead.

“To me, that just seems like a very logical way to approach leadership, whether you’re Native or not,” Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo, said to me from New Mexico in a phone interview. Protecting the earth from destruction and desecration was at the center of Haaland’s campaign and she said she will work tirelessly to follow the indigenous rule of protecting all living things seven generations out.

“If we look at the fossil fuel industry alone,” she said, “if folks seven generations ago would’ve thought about what it would do to our environment, perhaps they would’ve made different decisions.”

Or maybe not. The GOP doesn’t seem to care that, lately, things have gone from sick to seriously rotten: The water is noxious and the earth is burning, yet they continue to dig and pump more poison, pass blame, and deny that climate change is a real thing perpetuated by human behavior.

As for Haaland, she said she feels an obligation — in memory of her relatives and ancestors who survived aggressive Indian removal, brutal boarding schools built to “kill the Indian and save the man,” and a genocide — to protect the land and generations to come. But, she said, there’s a lot of damage that has been done, and it needs to be corrected and brought back to balance.

“(The Seven Generation Rule) has not played out in past Congresses,” she said, “so it’s almost like, in a way, we’re going to have to do some catching up and hope that we can right some things that should’ve been righted decades ago.

“We have a responsibility to the citizens of our state to provide these fundamental things like clean water, clean air, clean land,” she added.

It’s ironic that, when Europeans first arrived generations ago, they needed us to save them, to show them how to farm, survive, and live a harmonious and balanced life with the land. Several hundred years later, it appears they need us again.

This country needs a Haaland and a Davids in Washington, and Ruth Buffalo in North Dakota. Buffalo, who is of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, is the first female Native Democrat to be elected to the legislature there. She said there is a clear “paradigm shift” happening and that voters are now catching on that this country has been missing the wisdom of Native women.

“(We) have always lead our communities and tribes,” Buffalo said to me from North Dakota during a phone interview. “It’s nothing new or out of the norm to have our women out in front. We bring a balance.”

White men didn’t like Native women’s participation in governance when they first arrived here, and I’m not convinced the good ol’ boys of the GOP will like it any better today. But if there is to be anyone living seven generations from now, and if the water and earth are to survive the nasty plague of human greed and arrogance, it’s going to need the original stewards of this land to lead the way. It’s going to need indigenous women.

And, with them at the helm, I feel a little bit better about the future for all of us. Men have had their day at the tip-top. Move over, sirs; pass the mic and pay attention. Indigenous women are speaking and leading, as it has been and as it should be. And, if you listen, you might yet learn a thing or two.