I was recently told, “Not everyone has the privilege to have strong Native female role models.” If it’s so hard to find positive Native women role models, I must be the luckiest Indigenous person in the world. I see and know so many positive Native women role models around me – must mean I have hit the jackpot. All of them must only exist near me, or something. I even work with many and see them and talk to them constantly. I tell you – luckiest Indian in the world.
Yes, not everyone’s family is full of positive Indigenous role models. They don’t have to be. The beautiful thing about role models is that you can find them anywhere – your family is just one of the places. Anyone can be a role model – teachers, bosses, tribal members, elders, actors/actresses, comics, team members – you name it. I will guarantee without question that there are positive women role models from every tribe on this planet. When you choose well, those role models can be the catalyst for your life’s work. They can show you the path you want to live, especially if your family’s life choices don’t match what you want for yourself.
I don’t buy the notion that if you’re Indigenous the only options available to you are your immediate family or the crappy caricatures of Natives from old movies. That’s a terrible assumption – and not very imaginative. It takes a short time to think about the women in your community – women who are working hard for Native youth and their tribes – that are excellent role models. It takes a short time to find someone on TV or in movies that is Native, strong and potentially a great role model. It takes two minutes to do a Google search and find a whole slew of positive Native role models from different areas of the world, with different occupations, currently living, and also ones who walked on.
Everyone searches for other people who “get” them, who understand their passions, who have the same desires and interests. We are social beings and, especially when we’re young, we look for people to model ourselves after. People who are good at doing what we want to do, who live their life in a way that appeals to us. Sometimes you get lucky and someone close to you can be that person. Sometimes you want to do things no one around you understands or even values. That was me growing up. I had lots of women around me who had no clue what I was talking about when I said what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be (which, honestly, changed every day). No one talked about the possibility of doing the things I wanted to do – be a detective, become a member of Congress, a lawyer, a visual artist, a dancer, a composer, an actress, an astronaut, an inventor.
Back then, even without the Internet, it wasn’t too hard to find positive Indigenous women role models to help guide me. Seeing and hearing what Wilma Mankiller was doing for her tribe, both in Oklahoma and abroad, was a strong inspiration. Finding photographs of the Indigenous ballet dancers from our state who went on to national acclaim made me practice my dance moves even more and dream of moving to New York. Watching Indigenous rodeo queens trick ride at the state fair and during local rodeos showed me I could still hope to do a faster barrel race and a become a better roper. Meeting older teenage tribal girls who played amazing games of basketball and softball let me know there was space on the courts and fields for me too. Talking to tribal women with law degrees showed me it was possible for me too. Taking pictures with the tribal princesses at parades who worked hard on their regalia and danced for us each event reminded me of the beauty, skills and diversity of Indigenous people. It let me know I could be beautiful and skilled too. I found role models in real life, on the pages of books, and within favorite shows. That’s why representation is so important: when you see someone like yourself doing what you want to do, it becomes more than just a daydream. It’s real and you can see it, talk to it and, sometimes, even touch it. That’s more powerful than language can describe.
Maybe I am the luckiest Indian in the world. While I was writing this piece, I kept finding more and more names of Native women role models I wanted to share. So many, in fact, I had to stop keeping track of them all. If it is pure luck, I want to share it through my writing and through the resources I have available to me. I’ve made a page on my website that focuses on highlighting positive Indigenous women role models for everyone who needs them. I’ll keep adding to the list and highlighting women who do good works. Women that are a grand example of the possibility and opportunities available in this great big world. Feel free to share that resource with organizations working with Indigenous youth, people you know and love and folks you meet who may say “Not everyone…” Also, please suggest anyone you know about that belongs on that list but isn’t already featured. Let’s strive to be the role models our younger tribal members deserve and to help guide them down their chosen paths.