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Women making Native American history

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Lynda Lovejoy, who will face the incumbent president of the Navajo Nation in next month’s tribal election, is up against more than a runoff. She’s also challenging a cultural taboo against women leaders.

“I’m stunned,” said delegate Ervin Keeswood after Lovejoy’s primary victory. “In Navajo society, it’s always said that a woman would never be in that position.”

But in fact, Lovejoy isn’t the first to walk this path.

Before Wilma Mankiller became the first woman to lead a major modern tribe (the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma), she, too, ran into severe gender bias. Her car’s tires were slashed. Someone called repeatedly and cocked a gun. Once, Mankiller was to fill in as chief during an inter-tribal council meeting, and nobody saved her a seat.

Still, a year later she was elected chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Besides sheer determination, Mankiller advises these two approaches:
  1. Follow through. “If I said I was going to build a health clinic, even if it took me 10 years, I’d get that clinic built,” Mankiller says. Too many people in leadership try to do too many things and nothing gets done.”

  2. Make the best of the hand you’re dealt. “I’ve had cancer twice,” says Mankiller, “two kidney transplants and was in an accident that killed my best friend. I don’t always have control over what happens to me physically, but I have absolute control over how I deal with it. That translates to leadership. People gravitate toward people who find something solid and real and positive to hold on to.”
—Adapted from “Lovejoy makes history as first woman candidate for president,” Annie Greenberg, Navajo Times, and “Woman’s Work: Mankiller,” as told to Taylor Mallory, Pink.

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