American Indian Women Managers: Living in Two Worlds
Helen Juliette Muller
Anderson Schools of Management
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131-1221
In 1999, this article received the "Breaking the Frame Award" for 1998 from the Journal of Management Inquiry. This award is for the best article of the year in the journal.
The version of the article below is the original that was submitted to Journal of Management Inquiry.
For the published version see: Journal of Management Inquiry, Vol. 7, No. 1, March 1998, pp.4-28.
I acknowledge the Anderson Schools of Management Foundation which provided partial support of this research. In many respects this has been a collaborative study involving key people at each phase. The following individuals gave diligent assistance or advice: Lynette Austin-Roestenburg, Ilene Carr, Marta Field, Patricia Gulley, Wanda Hampton, Mary Ann Lunderman, and Nancy Owen. I want to especially thank my daughter, Mala Nani Htun, for her critical comments and useful suggestions, and Jaye Francis for her support and her perspectives on tribal people. Pauline Thomas's assistance with identifying and interviewing Navajo women is an important component of the project. The generous contributions and enthusiasm of the interviewees are invaluable. The insightful comments and constructive suggestions of three anonymous reviewers helped to move the manuscript to maturity. Karen Golden-Biddle's outstanding editorial talents helped to shape the final manuscript. Portions of an earlier draft of this paper were presented at the Western Social Science Annual Meeting in Albuquerque, NM in April 1997.
AMERICAN INDIAN WOMEN MANAGERS: LIVING IN TWO WORLDS
In the past few years, scholars have established that racio-ethnic
diversity is significant for organizational and management theory and practice
(Chemers, Oskamp & Costanzo, 1995; Cox, 1993; Fernandez, 1991; Jackson,
1992; Morrison, 1992, “Special Topic,” 1996). The issues posed by such diversity have
tangible consequences for the productivity and management of organizations (Cox,
1993; Ely & Thomas, 1996; Simons, Vázquez, & Harris, 1993; Tsui, Egan
& O’Reilly, 1992).
Nevertheless, much of the organization and management literature refrains
from incorporating these insights and portrays itself as "race-neutral" (Cox
& Nkomo, 1990; Nkomo, 1992).
The women and management literature is an exception. Feminist management theorists advocate
analyzing racio-ethnicity and gender
(Fagenson, 1993; Bell, Denton & Nkomo, 1993) in response to criticism that
this body of research is biased toward white women (Bell, Denton, & Nkomo,
1993; Betters-Reed & Moore, 1995; Calás & Smircich; 1996). I intend to increase the complexity of
our knowledge about the intersections of gender and racio-ethnicity in the
organization and management literature with my findings from the first empirical
study of American Indian women managers, a group that has been ignored in the
In this article, I explore the complex linkages of gender and
racio-ethnicity in an analysis of the work lives of a select group of American
Indian women managers in the southwestern U.S. In-depth interviews with twenty women
managers reveal a common theme which I refer to as “living in two worlds.” This theme has been developed in the
social sciences and cultural studies fields, by different groups of authors.
American Indian writers elaborate on this theme in describing the experience of
indigenous people surviving within a colonized state or of negotiating the
native and Anglo cultures (Coltelli, 1996; Crozier-Hogle & Wilson, 1997;
Harjo & Bird, 1997; Pelly, 1991; Witt, 1979). Scholars writing about immigrants and
middle class American women’s experiences use the “two worlds” theme to describe
the disparate and contradictory aspects of life (Baily & Ramella, 1988;
Dinnerstein, 1992; Van Donzel, 1993).
Although several of the issues faced by American Indians, and immigrants,
and women (who bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary roles) may
seem similar on the surface, American Indian experiences are distinct from those
of the other groups to whom the “two worlds” theme has been applied. American Indians, to a greater degree
than many other groups, were subjected to “cultural assaults” (Caulfield as
cited in Zinn & Dill, 1994) by Europeans who sought to “civilize” or
exterminate them (Jaimes, 1992).
To contextualize this study, I draw upon the theoretical framework of the
women in management literature, the social sciences literature on American
Indian women and other women of color, and work by recent American Indian women
writers. Developing greater
awareness in the organizational studies literature about American Indian people
is critical because American Indian cultural values differ significantly from
Anglo-American (or white middle class) cultural values that inform most U.S.
work organizations. Furthermore, American Indians are one of many racio-ethnic
groups that are entering the workforce in greater numbers but in unequal terms
(Work, 1984; Zinn & Dill, 1994).
Understanding American Indian women managers’ contemporary behavior is
important because they are making inroads into managerial positions despite
enduring cultural conflicts and “traditional” tribal gender expectations, and
they have developed unique techniques for working in different cultural
environments. The successful
manager of the future may be a transcultural leader (Simons, Vázquez, &
Harris, 1993), like the women in this study, who effectively manage cultural
interfaces with sensitive behaviors and attitudes, often speaking several
In this article, textual material from the interviews is organized around
various articulations of the “two worlds” theme to illustrate cultural aspects
of working in the American Indian and Anglo worlds and to describe gender-based
interaction patterns within and between tribes. I analyze location factors that place women in two
worlds and their various domains and switching techniques that permit women
to effectively work and balance their lives. Drawing upon the literature of
anthropologists and American Indian women, I contend that contemporary tribal
gender relations are the product, in part, of Spanish and Anglo colonists’
assimilation and deculturation practices. Understanding the historical context
of such relations is crucial to developing a deeper awareness of the complex
interplay of these women’s work lives in organizations. Finally, I draw from the data analysis
to augment the women in management theoretical framework that pertains to
racio-ethnic diversity and to call for greater attention to historical and
cultural patterns that locate contemporary groups of organizational
Gender and Racio-ethnicity in the Management
The women in management literature over the past twenty years has
legitimized the inclusion of gender into organization and management scholarship
as well as established its importance.
One assumes in reading this literature, however, that women experience
their lives primarily as gendered-beings and that “woman” is a universal
analytical category. White women
who, for the most part, developed this literature assumed that their findings
applied to all women (Bell, Denton & Nkomo, 1993; Betters-Reed & Moore,
1995), and failed to recognize that racio-ethnicity constitutes gendered
identities. Furthermore, each
nonwhite racio-ethnic group has been historically constructed and socially
constituted in distinct ways, and each has a particular relationship to the
dominant white (or Anglo) group (Amott & Matthaei, 1996). Group distinctiveness is reflected in
culturally-specific understandings of gender and gender differences. And, members of nonwhite groups may be
themselves culturally pluralistic, because their lives mediate their own culture
and the dominant Anglo culture. In
sum, the management literature became gender-conscious but racio-ethnically
blind. For example, Powell’s (1993)
widely cited book in the field lacks attention to cultural variations among
women and minimally acknowledges racio-ethnicity as an important factor in the
study of women managers. The women
in management literature, like the feminist literature, treats the social
construction of race as secondary to gender (Zavella as cited in Zinn &
As the nineties unfold, several important trends are emerging. First, studies on women in management worldwide acknowledge the importance of cultural factors in analyzing women’s status and progress toward managerial positions (Adler & Izraeli, 1988; 1994). Cross-national comparisons help to underscore the cultural and attitudinal factors that influence women’s access to power. Second, Fagenson’s (1993) gender-organizational-system approach argues that culture is an integral factor in understanding people and organizations, and that racio-ethnicity and historical processes influencing the position of people in organizations today needs to be addressed (Bell, Denton & Nkomo, 1993). Third, emerging alternative perspectives to the liberal feminist perspective in the social sciences, such as “post-colonial” analysis, may offer relevant and more appropriate insights for issues of racio-ethnicity and gender in contemporary organizations (Calás & Smircich, 1996). Such analyses question the frozen and homogenous categories such as American Indian and third world women (that perpetuate stereotypes), incorporate historical and cultural factors as critical research components, unveil the subtle and overt power relations between the state and marginalized people that affect gender roles, and deconstruct racio-ethnic identities as constructed by Western positive science (Alexander & Mohanty, 1997; Mohanty, 1994). Already, several non-organizational studies’ scholars have employed post-colonial analysis to reconstruct and deepen our understanding of the situation of historical and contemporary American Indian women (Etienne & Leacock, 1980; Guerrero, 1997; Sparks, 1995).
At present, nonwhite managers are constrained by social attitudes and
contemporary organizational structures which reflect inequalities in the labor
market (Amott & Matthaei, 1996; Fernandez, 1991; Morrison & Von Glinow,
1990). Moreover, women of color have argued that their social identities are as
equally (or even more) structured by racio-ethnicity as by gender (Amott &
Matthaei, 1996; Bell, 1990; Bell, Denton & Nkomo, 1993; Guerrero, 1997;
Jaimes with Halsey, 1992; Zinn & Dill, 1994). To date, empirical studies of nonwhite
women managers have focused primarily on black women (Higgenbotham, 1994; Nkomo
& Cox, 1989; Sokoloff, 1992). Bell (1990) posits that black professional
women are bicultural and compartmentalize their lives to distinguish black and
white cultures. Parker &
ogilvie (1996), in their review of black women leaders, argue for a culturally
distinct model of African-American women executives’ leadership. They believe that black women’s
leadership strategies reflect and are shaped by their socialization as black
women, and by their unique social location within dominant culture
organizations. Moreover, they argue
that African American women must negotiate organizational interactions
constrained by the effects of centuries-old, stereotypical images that pervade
Western society (Parker & ogilvie, 1996).
More attention to nonwhite groups in the organization and management literature is warranted because their presence in both management and in the general workforce is increasing. Each nonwhite group is likely to forge a path towards full equality as different and distinctive as the nonmajority statuses and forms of exclusion each seeks to overcome. Neither European immigrants nor blacks provide useful analogies for the barriers that American Indians, Asians and Hispanics face or will encounter (Harrison & Bennett, 1995). As such it is important to locate the experience of each racio-ethnic group with its own socially and historically specific context (Segura, 1992; Segura & Pierce, 1993).
Nevertheless, there is little literature on Hispanic and Asian women
managers although the social and behavioral sciences and women’s studies
literature has widely addressed the
experiences of these groups in other settings. Likewise, there are no studies of
American Indian women in the organization and management literature. Even review articles, such as Morrison
and Von Glinow’s (1990), that address minorities and women in management do not
acknowledge tribal women. Clearly
much work remains to be done. This
article is the first on American Indian women managers in the organizational
This major part of the article describes, in the following three subsections, the research setting and context of American Indian women in the workforce, the design of the study, and concludes with a profile of the women interviewed.
Contemporary labor force participation by American Indian women more than doubled from 26 percent (of all American Indian women over 16 years ) in 1960 (Ortiz, 1994) to 55 percent in 1990 (Amott & Matthaei, 1996). During the period 1970 - 90, American Indian women made substantive inroads into sales jobs in commodities and finance, and into executive, managerial and administrative jobs (Amott & Matthaei, 1996). The Glass Ceiling Commission (1995) reports that almost three-quarters of American Indian women managers work in government employment (tribal, state, local and federal), and employed American Indians have the highest proportionate representation in the public administration sector followed by the utilities sector. Moreover negative stereotypes of American Indians by CEO’s distort perceptions about the suitability of tribal people for business positions and few American Indian female or male executives are employed in the private sector: American Indians are “invisible at the top management level” in the private sector (Glass Ceiling Commission, 1995, p.86)
By 1990, there were 705,518 employed American Indians ages 16 years and
over of whom 11.6 percent held executive, administrative and managerial
positions (Bureau of the Census, 1992).
American Indian women hold about half of all of the total workforce
positions held by American Indians (Glass Ceiling Commission, 1995) and they
occupy 50.8 percent of all managerial positions held by American Indians (Bureau
of the Census, 1992). The
proportion of American Indian women employed in executive, administrative and
managerial positions is proportionately greater than white women who hold 41.2
percent of all such positions held by whites (Bureau of the Census, 1992). Some American Indians, including several
of the study women, advanced with the help of the federal American Indian
preference policy, affecting the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian
Affairs among others, to promote American Indians to posts previously held by
The educational attainment of American Indians is improving but remains low relative to the general population: Nine percent hold college degrees and 3,277 hold post graduate degrees; it is estimated that half of American Indians who earn MBAs or equivalent degrees are employed with tribes or their ventures (Glass Ceiling Commission, 1995). While American Indian women have made inroads into employment and management, the median income of American Indian women ($7310) is the lowest of the major racio-ethnic groups’ median income, and it is 33 percent of Anglo women’s median income (Amott & Matthaei, 1996). In New Mexico, 46 percent of American Indians are below the poverty level (Department of Health, 1994). Clearly, American Indians as a whole are economically disadvantaged and, by comparison, those American Indian women managers making appropriate salaries are economically advantaged.
In tribal leadership positions, American Indian women have attained some
representation. By 1981, women held
the top leadership position in about 70 of the 482 federally recognized Indian
nations (Amott & Matthaei, 1996).
Nationwide, Chiefs such as Wilma Mankiller of the Cherokee Nation have
helped other Americans to understand tribal history and tribal women’s
roles. Other nationally prominent
American Indian women, such as Ada Deer, who recently headed the Bureau of
Indian Affairs, and Winona Laduke, who with Ralph Nadar made up the Green Party
ticket in the 1996 Presidential election, occupy prominent public service
The study region is an area where tribal lands are prevalent and where tribes have retained their cultures and identities. This region includes the Navajo Nation, the largest American Indian community in the United States with approximately 200,000 people, located in a large territory bordering northern Arizona and northwest New Mexico, and portions of New Mexico where a broad spectrum of tribes live both in their sovereign nations (sometimes referred to as reservations) and in urban areas. In New Mexico, there are 19 Pueblo tribal nations, who form their own governmental coalition, as well as many other tribal nations, for example, the Mescalero Apache, and people from other tribes, such as the Cherokee, and the Comanche who do not live within tribally owned lands. Tribal membership does not require living “on the reservation” as this study will illustrate. To officially belong to a tribe and be eligible for benefits, such as land and voting rights, an individual must have a particular “blood quantum” that is determined by each tribe (Wilson, 1992). The Laguna tribe, for example, requires ¼ “Laguna blood” for enrolled tribal status and parental origin determines the bloodline. In some tribes membership is contingent upon only one parent’s bloodline.
To participate in this exploratory study, I sought out a broad cross-section of American Indian women in various organizational sectors, in both urban and rural locations, in different types of senior-level management positions, and from different tribal affiliations.[i] Several of my co-workers and graduate students assisted me by serving as liaisons to establish relationships with women managers who readily agreed to participate in the study. I believe that these women are representative of the diversity of American Indian women managers who work and live in the study region.
Because there are no previous studies of American Indian women managers, I chose a historical-biographical approach to explore, in-depth, the manager’s lives. This holistic approach has been suggested by several authors for studying experiences of women of color in management, especially when there is little previous information (Bell & Nkomo, 1992; Bell, Denton & Nkomo, 1993). Moreover, Bowker (1993) used this approach to study the educational experiences of American Indian women.
My study design includes a brief look at the literature on American
Indian women. Several prominent
American Indian women writers (Allen, Harjo and Silko are from the study area)
argue that the subordinate status of contemporary tribal women results from the
imposition of Spanish and Anglo colonists’ policies, programs, and gender-role
stereotypes, and not from pre-colonial tribal gender roles. Their contention is an important facet
of incorporating a more accurate understanding of the contemporary intersection
of racio-ethnicity and gender in organizations.
I conducted most of the interviews.
Three graduate students in business and education, one of whom is Navajo,
assisted with eight of the interviews.
The interviews are tape recorded and each interviewee had the opportunity
to review her transcript and correct it.
Because these managers occupy unique positions, their names are not
revealed, nor is any other information that could readily identify them. The interviews lasted from one and one
half to over three hours.
Interviews took place either at the work site or at the interviewee’s
home, and, in one case, at a commercial establishment. I tape recorded and transcribed several
public talks that interviewees delivered in which they revealed details of their
personal and professional lives. In
addition, because her
administrative experience parallels that of other women in the study, I videotaped, transcribed, and analyzed
a university classroom presentation to one of my classes by Verna Williamson
Teller, former Chairperson at Isleta Pueblo.[ii] The Isleta tribe is one of the Pueblo
tribes represented by the women in the study.
I developed a semi-structured format to guide the women through a series
of open-ended questions pertaining to four areas:
1) Family background,
tribal affiliation, personal demographics, and education,
2) Work history and
career development issues,
3) Managerial and
4) Gender and culturally-related tribal expectations and roles.[iii]
The open dialogue between interviewer and interviewee permitted women to explore issues in as much depth as they wanted.[iv] We conducted the interviews in English, although English is not some women’s first language.
To analyze the data two people independently coded and grouped into
coding categories all material that related to a particular theme. Material within these thematic
categories was compared for variations in meaning, and material across
categories was compared to find connections between themes (Rubin & Rubin,
1995). In this article, I analyze
the interviewees experiences as they play out around the major theme “living in
two worlds.” Within this major
theme, two subordinate themes emerged from the data analysis: 1) work related conflicts between tribal
culture and Anglo culture, and 2) gender-related conflicts within the
tribe. In the subsections that
follow, I discuss several characteristics of the women managers, including
demographics, organizational affiliations, tribal identity, and language.
Profile of women interviewed
Demographic characteristics of the women managers are displayed in Table 1: Job position, age at interview, age at first management position, educational status or degree, languages spoken, and marital status, including number of children. At the time of the interview, the women’s average age was 44.2 years. Sixteen women had an average of 2.9 children. The 20 interviewees hold mostly senior level posts in different organizational sectors: 1) federal government: Health agency and tribal affairs agency, 2) state government: Tribal affairs agency and a major university, 3) major research enterprise, 4) tribal government: Department and enterprise, and 5) small business: For-profit and non-profit consulting. Collectively, the women manage between one and 800 people. The size of the above organizations range from small business (less than 6 employees) to large bureaucracies (up to 15,000 employees). Most of the women’s staff are either human service employees of Anglo, Hispanic or tribal background, or tribal government/enterprise employees who are American Indian. A few women supervise more technically oriented people who come from a mix of the above backgrounds. There is no discernible gender pattern among their subordinates. Half of the managers are the first American Indian woman to attain a high-level position in their organization. Two women hold elected legislative positions: A non-tribal post and a tribal post. A third woman holds an important state-level gubernatorial appointment.
[Place Table 1
[Place Table 1
The educational status of the interviewees ranges from high school
diploma to the doctorate. Several
women stated that they are the first person in their family to complete a
college degree. Their degrees in
higher education, generally, are in traditionally female fields such as
education, health care, and counseling.
Another woman said that she was the only American Indian in her college’s
business program. All of the women,
except one, married, remarried, or were involved in long term stable
relationships. In general, marriage
is important to the women’s lives.
Although these women are not a statistically representative sample, the
data could imply that American Indian women managers are by percentage more
likely to be married than Anglo women managers.
The educational status of the interviewees ranges from high school diploma to the doctorate. Several women stated that they are the first person in their family to complete a college degree. Their degrees in higher education, generally, are in traditionally female fields such as education, health care, and counseling. Another woman said that she was the only American Indian in her college’s business program. All of the women, except one, married, remarried, or were involved in long term stable relationships. In general, marriage is important to the women’s lives. Although these women are not a statistically representative sample, the data could imply that American Indian women managers are by percentage more likely to be married than Anglo women managers.
The tribal and racio-ethnic origins of the interviewees are
multifaceted. Table 2 illustrates
the predominant tribal and other racio-ethnic origins of the women’s parents
because one’s tribal identity, as mentioned earlier, depends on one’s
parents. In reality, many women’s
parents are of more than one tribal background. I group the various Pueblo tribes under
the category “Pueblo” in order to protect identities. Seven women identify their tribal
affiliation as Navajo. Another
woman claims identity to both Navajo and Pueblo. Eleven women claim identity with one of
the following Pueblo tribes:
Laguna, Tesuque, Acoma, San Felipe, Isleta, Santa Clara, Taos, and
Jemez. One other woman identifies
herself as a member of a Great Plains tribe.
[Place Table 2
[Place Table 2
The women speak, collectively, seven tribal languages that belong to
four different American Indian language families: Athapaskan, Numic, Siouian, and Tanoan
(see Table 3). The Tanoan and Numic
language groups comprise the four different languages spoken by the Pueblo
tribes represented in the study, whereas the Athapaskan language group includes
the Navajo language. As children,
six women spoke predominantly a tribal language, eight women spoke predominantly
English, and six women spoke both English and a tribal language. The eight women who grew up speaking
predominantly English also understand their tribal language to varying
degrees. Today, half of the women
are at least bilingual; the others
have various degrees of subordinate bilingualism (de Anda, 1984) because they
have incomplete knowledge of at least one American Indian language. Bilingual ability permits women to work
and be located in two or more worlds.
The women speak, collectively, seven tribal languages that belong to
four different American Indian language families: Athapaskan, Numic, Siouian, and Tanoan
(see Table 3). The Tanoan and Numic
language groups comprise the four different languages spoken by the Pueblo
tribes represented in the study, whereas the Athapaskan language group includes
the Navajo language. As children,
six women spoke predominantly a tribal language, eight women spoke predominantly
English, and six women spoke both English and a tribal language. The eight women who grew up speaking
predominantly English also understand their tribal language to varying
degrees. Today, half of the women
are at least bilingual; the others
have various degrees of subordinate bilingualism (de Anda, 1984) because they
have incomplete knowledge of at least one American Indian language. Bilingual ability permits women to work
and be located in two or more worlds.
[Place Table 3
[Place Table 3 About Here]
Working in Two Worlds
American Indian and Anglo cultures
In order to develop the analysis of women’s work experiences, it is
useful to compare the major features of the American Indian and Anglo
cultures. The two categories -
American Indian and Anglo - are each social constructs that have fluid and
permeable boundaries and variations.
I have selected the traditional Navajo tribal culture to represent
“American Indian” culture because it is the largest tribe in the southwest. It is beyond the scope of this article
to articulate all the particular distinctions among the various Pueblo tribes
and then contrast these features with the Navajo tribe. The Navajo, Pueblo, and Plains tribes
share similar values and traditions in contrast to the Anglo culture, yet there
are many particular distinctions among them. The Hispanic culture is also prevalent
in the study area, but its influence is less apparent in the organizations where
the women work. Table 4 illustrates
several features of Navajo and Anglo culture to illustrate their profound
differences in which, and to varying degrees, the study women live and
work. In summary, Winfield (1995)
characterizes the Navajo culture as collectivist and the Anglo culture as
(Place Table 4 about here)
Cultural differences in relationship to work behavior have been studied
but mostly in cross-national contexts (Adler, 1997; Hofstede, 1984; Simons,
Vázquez & Harris, 1993; Stewart & Bennett, 1991). I have chosen to discuss the following
aspects of work behavior that appeared most frequently in the data
analysis: Competition, achievement,
orientation to time, motivation, and interpersonal interactions. In addition, discriminatory behaviors
and prejudicial attitudes affect women’s work behavior; these are dealt with in both this and
the following subsections. The
interviewees managed and transitioned among different cultural aspects of work
behavior, often on a daily basis, with customers, employees, peers, bosses and
competitors. I examine below the
five major categories of cultural differences in work behavior, and, briefly,
First, the American Indian women managers are not brought up to be assertive and competitive. They often cited childhood experiences
to illustrate differences between appropriate tribal behavior and job
requisites. One manager, at a large
technical enterprise, said that she was brought up to be unassuming,
noncompetitive, and to act in a manner that was very different from the
behaviors that she had to adopt at work:
… how we were brought up is very different and
that continues to be a struggle on a daily basis…as a young child, out of
respect for adults, you listen and not interrupt and not have eye-to-eye
contact… I certainly have had to work hard in being able to do the opposite of
some of those things…in this setting I … deal with people…talk, make
presentations and have that eye contact...Certainly there’s competition
everywhere, but especially at this level.
You have to be able to show that you’re good. And that’s not something that…I was
taught growing up. You don’t do
things to stand out, to
make yourself look good. But
over here, you almost have to do that to survive here. To be out there, visible, and to show
people that you can do your job…and it’s just sometimes a struggle for me…to
kind of totally feel comfortable that, yes, I’m doing a good job. And I can stand out. It’s something that, still, I have to
work at…it’s not something that is natural for me because that’s not the way I
Another woman, who manages a large government
organization providing human services to tribes, described the assertive and
competitive behaviors expected by her job that contrast with tribal cultural
expectations and different modes of information transmission:
The position in management is…regular,
certain…to be assertive, to be asking questions, to be inquisitive and to be
planning for the future; to be competitive; those things that are not really a
part of Pueblo women’s culture…Cultural traditions are unwritten and passed down
from elders; at work, everything is
documented with deadlines and regiments.
A second feature of organizational work, implied in the quote above, is the Anglo linear orientation to time that is represented by planning. This is not a feature of traditional tribal culture, yet the women managers must continually plan activities in all of their jobs. Moreover, the work attributes that the women managers discussed portray organizational structures and work patterns of both American Indian organizations and federal and state organizations as modeled after Anglo work norms, especially bureaucratic features. The tribal governments and tribal enterprises in which the women work, for the most part, have adopted Anglo-oriented work norms. Alongside such Anglo work patterns, tribal cultural patterns and values co-exist; they are manifested in particular tribal celebrations (such as blessing ceremonies and dances), in the use of tribal languages, in the laws and regulations that pertain to tribal traditions and treaties, and in interpersonal relationships, especially those involving family matters.
Third, women face dramatically different attitudes toward achievement in the two worlds, and consequently, to the meaning of life. Another Pueblo woman manager commented: “All of my achievements, education-wise, academically, they just disappear when I go into my community.” She explained that in the Anglo work world her professional status increases with acquiring grants and writing proposals, whereas in the Pueblo world, one’s “standing” is associated with religion. “Anglo” work and educational achievements have little relevance to tribal religion. This point was reinforced by another Pueblo woman who explained that the people who are most valued in her tribe, and who are the strongest in terms of “the traditional way of life, were often the ones least valued in school.” This situation, she said, “made me feel bad because to me those were some of the more, most important people…because they were our culture.” These women’s words illustrate the profound differences around what is fundamentally important in the tribal and Anglo worlds, and they suggest the cultural chasms with which professional women must contend.
Fourth, cultural differences affect people’s perceptions of work motivation. American Indian religious priorities
that hold great importance and that can take tribal employees away from their
jobs can be interpreted by non tribal managers as a lack of job commitment or a
lack of motivation. A woman manager
in a large technical enterprise explained:
That’s been a real puzzlement to people, to say, why is it that American Indians don’t want to stay here…there is a very different culture here. The corporate culture is where everything is for the good of the company and you will do everything as an employee to push the company, and with American Indians…their values are different in that the community and family activities come before the corporate values. And so if they’re called on to do this or that, either for the family or for the community, that comes first.
Verna Teller, the former Chairperson of Isleta
Pueblo, elaborated further on some of the dilemmas posed by tribal priorities
and formal, wage work in Anglo-oriented organizations:
[Tribal people] may have positions in the
community that they’re not going to talk about…because of those positions that
they hold, they have some real responsibilities to the tribe [that] takes them
away from work or even going off the reservation for two or three days
sometimes…It’s hard on them, not only because of the responsibility, but they
also have to feed their families and pay their bills…they’ve got a
responsibility to the reservation…if it means losing their job, they’ll lose
their job [rather] than to be absent from the thing they have to be at, at
Ms. Teller’s comments illustrate the significance and private nature of tribal religious matters, especially where they clash with Anglo work expectations. The women managers work in organizations that are able to accommodate, in general, their obligation to participate in tribal activities. In some cases, their superiors are unaware of such tribal commitments because the women choose not to reveal them. More often, the women take normal vacation time for tribal activities. One interviewee explained that American Indians do not take “vacation” time in the usual sense because it is used for tribal related matters.
Fifth, personal interaction
patterns differ in American Indian and Anglo cultures. One Navajo manager highlighted differing
cultural interaction norms when she explained that non tribal developers, with
whom she works, often talk about family matters to her. In her Navajo culture, she says,
conversation about family matters with strangers is inappropriate. She “kind of has to switch gears,” she
said, to accommodate to the different conversational norms. Another example of different cultural
interaction patterns pertains to informality and formality. A prominent official who has worked with
numerous tribal groups and many types of organizations recalled:
…they’re [tribe] usually informal and you can
express almost anything…we always express our very personal feelings…[non tribal
group] meetings are very formal and you have to be objective…we have to take
everything into consideration, we have to look at options.
The point illustrated by these two women’s
comments is that, within tribal culture, appropriate conversational norms among
tribal members differ from appropriate conversational norms between tribal and
non tribal members, and from norms in formal work settings where non American
Indian people predominate. Women
managers must be sensitive to each particular context and then respond
appropriately. Hall (1981) explains
that high-context cultures, such as Navajo, make greater distinctions between
insiders and outsiders than low context cultures, such as Anglo.
In a different example of conversational/decision-making patterns,
a woman, who formerly held a senior-level position in the Navajo government,
described the ambiance at tribal meetings and the importance of tribal values to
The Navajo value system is a big factor in how
decisions are made. And here,
[corporate] there’s really not that much emphasis on any types of values like
that other than: ‘is this in line
with our mission?’…For instance an [tribe] example would be, before a decision
is made a lot of times people, which is typical, ask what the elders think about
this. ‘What do you think the elders would think about this? Have you consulted with any of the
elders before you’re making this recommendation?’ And so, there’s always a time
when there would be some statement or some respect as to what the traditional
people or older people would think about this. And the other thing is the Earth’s kind
of values, I guess…we pay a lot of emphasis put on, “well, we couldn’t do that
because there is a burial ground.”
This same manager elaborated on the ambiance at
tribal meetings and its contrast to the corporate mentality of her job with a
large non American Indian enterprise:
[at tribal meetings] there’s a lot more
attention paid to what people think, how they feel about things…there was a lot
more in the way of shaking hands and saying hello to everyone…And I don’t see
that [at current job]…at all…on the reservation if you’re in a meeting, most
likely the meeting will run a lot longer and most likely everyone will have a
chance to talk, even if it’s just to say whatever you observed or whatever your
comments are…meetings take as long as they have to take…it’s not a matter of
liking one another or not liking one another…there’s a lot more of personal
interaction and people enjoy the meeting and just kind of liking being
there. So there’s a more social
aspect to it and it doesn’t matter if it goes a long time…They always begin with
a prayer and always end with a prayer.
Hall (1994) characterizes the Navajo mode of
communication, illustrated in these quotes, as a “mutual assessment of feelings
and expression,” in contrast to the Anglo pattern of “showing relative strength
and dominance (p.90)”. Such
communication patterns reflect fundamental cultural contextual differences that
can result in cross-cultural problems and misunderstandings (Simons, Vázquez
& Harris, 1993; Stewart & Bennett, 1991; Tannen, 1994). Because American Indian communication
patterns differ markedly from Anglo patterns, the women managers must skillfully
work with and respond to each particular pattern.
Another Navajo manager elaborated on Navajo communication patterns. She emphasized the highly contextualized
non-verbal behavioral component of
communication which she effectively uses in public situations where she
interacts with Anglos:
Most non-Indian women are very assertive…and confident…I don’t conduct myself that assertively, but I get my point across and I make people understand what I believe in…not a lot of talk, just a real pleasant persuasion…using my traditional beliefs to persuade people…Something that’s very…deep seated to us, if it pertains to land, water - there’s a certain way we expose our emotions to get our point across. There’s a certain attitude or a certain personality or a certain body language that we use…to express our emotion that these things are sacred…In those kind of issues that I deal with, a non-Indian would speak to it in a way where there’s no feelings…what’s more meaningful to them is the economics.
Sixth, other issues of interaction between the dominant culture and
American Indians require the women’s attention. Most of the women encountered discriminatory behaviors and negative stereotyping as children and they found
such behaviors and attitudes to persist later on in life. One manager’s remarks illustrate how she
perceived the dominant culture’s biases towards her as an American Indian and
how she reacted to it:
I have noticed that the way people view me and
society views me. The disadvantage
to them, the way they perceive it is that I’m a woman, I’m from a minority group -
Indians. And so immediately, I have
two strikes against me. [But]I
don’t view it as a handicap or a disadvantage at all!
A manager working in a city told of her
encounter with prejudicial attitudes and her response:
Sometimes I come across condescending attitudes…and then I get bugged by that…so they [non-Indians] feel like some of them have the mentality that because you’re Native American, you may not always know what you’re talking about…but I always let them know…
In both of these examples, the interviewees demonstrate a resolve to view themselves as competent people, thus transcending the potentially disabling attitudes and behaviors of others. Although in these examples the women refer to “interracial” prejudice, several of them also note such attitudes by members of other tribal groups that from time to time affect their work.
In order to negotiate the world of work, the women adopted behaviors and acquired skills that are substantively different from those cultivated by the tribal cultures in which they grew up. Many of them believe that they learned these behaviors and skills as children when they located to different places and related to relatives from different tribes or racio-ethnicities thus involuntarily experiencing two worlds. No matter where they lived, where they worked, or who they lived with, all the interviewees emphasized the importance of their tribal values and their tribal identity. Each woman participates periodically in tribal religious and family activities to reaffirm bonds and to feel renewed. For those who live and work on the reservation, these are readily accessible; for the others, such participation involved considerable travel. Many women practice both a Christian religion and their tribal religion. The substantive differences between the Anglo-oriented world of wage work and tribal traditions may explain, in part, why the women in this study chose to work for tribally-related organizations or organizations in which their work was directed at American Indian people. Because cultural values are so different, and because of the widespread stereotypical perceptions of non-American Indians with which tribal people have to contend (Fernandez, 1991; Glass Ceiling Commission, 1995), working with people who hold similar values and being in locations where such stereotypes are less common makes sense.
Gender as contested domain
In this subsection I focus on gender-based interaction patterns among women and men in the American Indian world. First, I briefly review the transformation of tribal gender relations from a historical perspective, and then I rely on the interview data to analyze contemporary gender interactions. Kibria (1994) argues that gender conflicts occur within particular racio-ethnic groups as men and women struggle for control. She further argues that “traditional” cultures do not necessarily become more modern as they assimilate into the dominant culture nor are they necessarily freed from the patriarchy of traditional men. Tannen (1994) argues that men and women, cross-culturally, have different conversational rituals that affect their performance at work, and that women’s styles more often place them in the subordinate positions. The situation of tribal gender relations in the study area illustrates their points. Paradoxically, American Indian women in the study area feel subordinated by patriarchal behaviors and policies that tribes adopted as the Spanish and Anglo colonists sought to assimilate and deculture them.
There is ample evidence in the anthropological literature and in the literature by American Indian women that, in many tribes, women attained a high or equal-complementary status with men prior to European contact.[v] The existence of egalitarian relationships has been under-researched and more recent work exposes the biases of previous researchers who failed to adequately consider the important roles that women played (Guerrero, 1997; LaFromboise, Heyle & Ozer, 1990; Mankiller & Wallis, 1993; Sparks, 1994). Moreover, gender identity did not necessarily conform to the binary sexual distinctions common to Spanish and Anglo cultures (Albers, 1989; Amott & Mattthaei, 1996; Blackwood, 1984; Green, 1980; Gutiérrez, 1991). Some tribes permitted women to assume male roles and to live their lives as men and to marry women; alternatively some men assumed female roles. In the study area, the most famous case of the latter is the Zuni Pueblo man-woman known as We’wha (Roscoe, 1991). Tribal societies viewed these “berdaches,” as they are called in the literature, as productive and valuable individuals.
The early Spaniards in the southwest attempted to impose their patriarchal forms of religion and government on the native population (Allen, 1992). The European colonizers’ assimilation strategies resulted in the breakdown of the traditional complementary male-female relations in the tribes and a general increase in tribal male dominance and control over Indian women (LaFromboise, Heyle, & Ozer, 1990; Allen, 1992; Jaimes with Halsey, 1992). Patterns of governance and authority varied among the tribes. Both matrilineal and patrilineal patterns of inheritance and ownership existed. In some tribal social systems, it is clear that women played critical economic, political and spiritual roles (Allen, 1992; Foote & Schackel, 1986; Jaimes with Halsey, 1992; LaFromboise, Heyle, & Ozer, 1990; Sparks, 1995). For example, the Navajo, Zuni, and Laguna tribes had matrilineal descent patterns while the Cherokee and Iroquois had matriarchal forms of governance (Albers, 1989; Bonvillain, 1989; Hamamsy, 1957). Mankiller & Wallis (1993) note that early European observers, in discovering the prominent role that tribal women had in policy decisions, made disparaging remarks such as “The Cherokees have a petticoat government (p. 19).”
American Indian women scholars have studied the problematic situation of
American Indian women in various tribes under the Spanish and American
colonialists. The U.S. government
was unwilling to recognize a woman as
the representative of her people’s interest nor as able to argue for water
rights (Jaimes with Halsey, 1992).
Moreover, it is clear that there was a conscious effort on the part of
Western administrators and missionaries to subordinate women’s roles (Klein
& Ackerman, 1995). Several
compelling and well-documented case studies illustrate the unwillingness of the
colonists to deal with matriarchal forms of governance and women leaders among
the tribes. For example, the
colonists convinced the Cherokee men that women ought not to comprise their
governing council and the constitution was changed to prevent women from serving
as council members (Allen, 1992).
On Navajo lands, the U.S. government refused to recognize land ownership
patterns that accorded such rights to women; it allotted reservation lands to Navajo
men and listed men as household heads;
these practices totally ignored Navajo clan relationships based on
matrilineal principles (Bluehouse, 1993; Shepardson, 1995).
Paula Gunn Allen (1992), the noted scholar from Laguna Pueblo, argues that the colonists fundamentally altered gender roles in many tribes by forcing women to accept marginal and subordinate roles that were not indigenous to their cultures. In many cases, this was accomplished by U.S. government and missionary boarding schools that took American Indian children from their homes and to schools that forbade them to speak their languages and attempted to assimilate them into Euro-American culture (Trimble, 1987). Several interviewees experienced such assimilation programs or relocation programs.
The women managers in the study often found themselves in difficult work
situations because tribal men could not accept their professional status. They all cited tribal male attitudes
that they believe constrain women’s opportunities to advance at work and to
obtain policy making posts. On the
other hand, the women’s managerial status often resulted from the influence of a
prominent tribal man. Almost all of
the women in the study consider the Pueblo and Navajo tribes to be “male
dominated,” especially in issues of public policy and tribal politics, and to be
“traditional” with respect to what is appropriate behavior for contemporary
In the Navajo Nation only five out of 88 elected members are women. Women have held tribal chair
positions in three out of 19 Pueblo tribes. In some Pueblo tribal governments women
are not allowed to hold positions on the tribal council nor allowed to vote
(Linthicum, 1996). In at least one
case, women are not even allowed to speak at tribal meetings. Some Pueblo tribes, that were
matrilineal, adopted patriarchal inheritance rules. For example, the “modern” constitution
of Santa Clara Pueblo disenfranchises children of Santa Clara women, who marry a
non-Santa Clara man, from inheriting property on the reservation even if the
father is American Indian. This
policy does not apply to the children of Santa Clara men who married non-Santa
Clara women (James with Halsey, 1992; Guerrero, 1997).
In an effort to explain the sexist behaviors and attitudes of American Indian men towards tribal women, several interviewees blamed boarding school experience for altering men’s attitudes from long-standing tribal egalitarian traditions. One prominent woman expressed this well:
In our…mythology, in the legends…it’s never been where the woman was put in the background or taken a secondary role. Never…It’s been a full partnership…And a lot of that changed in the 20s, the 30s, the 40s, and the 50s because…we were sent off to boarding school. We were assimilated. We were acculturated…we know what the dominant society thinks about their women. So some of those ideas, they imposed on us…I think that accounts…to a large degree, affects the type of attitudes [our] men have today. It’s a product of their schooling.
The manager of Plains tribal origin was
perplexed by her discovery through her work that men are in charge of Pueblo
I was surprised by this…because with the Plains,
the women are assumed to be pretty tough…and be leaders. And we’ve had women chiefs…it surprised
me, the attitude of Indian men toward women here…And it’s a Spanish
holdover. Machismo…and they [tribal
men] still haven’t figured out that they just got acculturated to oppressing
their own women.
An interviewee who formerly held one of only a
few high-level positions occupied by women in a particular tribal government
administration revealed her frustration about gender relations:
[Tribal] men just can’t handle women in
positions who are competent people…a double standard…they
give preferential treatment to the males in the office - talking with him and
This woman added that she would use humor to deal with these issues, for example: “Gee, it must be nice to be male.” Another high ranking manager who had a difficult time gaining acceptance by tribal men feels that the tribal work environment is bureaucratic, sexist, and difficult for senior-level women especially:
It’s just really interesting their egos…if you
walk into a room and you’re the only woman at a meeting, you can just feel the
ego, the testosterones, we call it.
Another high ranking Navajo manager said that
both tribal men and women had trouble accepting the amount of power that she
held, but particularly men, and there was gossip:
…there were a lot of times that people would
come in, especially men, and ‘cause I was a woman, in really a non-traditional
kind of appointment. And they
couldn’t understand how I could get the job…they thought it was because my
father…had donated so much money…and another thing that people would
think…really…is, well, you must be having an affair. And, you know, real dirty kind of
stuff…it’s really too bad, but I think women just take a harder hit from society
in general when they’re out in the public eye so much. I think men can be very mean as far as
‘well, she just slept her way to the top.’ I’ve heard a lot of really ugly kind
of things about women who were doing a good job and really not doing that, and I
think too often that [we] are willing to listen to that kind of thing…And other
people don’t know if it’s true or not.
Even public charges of sexism have rung through
the Navajo Nation Council’s chambers (Shebala, 1995).
The women’s managerial status, an achieved status in Anglo-oriented work
cultures, can be the source of difficulty when women interact or supervise men
at work, who, according to tribal custom, hold important ascribed religious
positions. This can be particularly
problematic when a woman manager has to supervise a lower work-status, and at
the same time, high religious-status man.
Such was the case of a Pueblo manager who recalled problems she
Whatever you do at home is not part of
[business] environment…for some, I come across very strong…I will take immediate
action, discipline…but again, in that business environment, we are not
related. We are boss and employee…I
can see managers struggle - even I struggle. Because some of the men…are kiva[vi] leaders. They’re maintenance workers…when I’m a
manager and I need something done, then to talk to
them in that way is hard for me.
One of our managers is a kiva
leader. So when I disagree with
him, I’ll get up in his face and then all of a sudden, I remember, and I’ll back
off…that’s confusing for me…a lot of my dreams were struggling with the Anglo
and the cultural side of it.
Policies, practices and attitudes such as those mentioned above affect
the lives of the women managers.
Some women deal with such issues on a daily basis, others try to minimize
the encounters by living off the reservation, avoiding certain tribal functions,
or, in a few cases, working for non-tribal organizations. Most women have a difficult time
accepting the sexist behaviors of male tribal members, but some still prefer to
live on the reservation. Despite
these kinds of problems and despite the traditional attitudes of some of their
professional colleagues and other tribal members, all of the women indicated
unwavering respect for tribal traditions and values.
Their interviewees’ skills at
adeptly managing difficult gender relations may be related to their general
adaptability, acquired in childhood, when they learned to accommodate to
different tribal customs, cultural differences between their parents, and to
Anglo social behavior at schools. The historical context, discussed above,
reveals the colonially imposed legacy of patriarchy with which contemporary
tribal women, at least in the study area, have to contend. This presents an interesting paradox in
their lives: Matrilineal and
sometimes matrilocal tribal traditions co-exist with patriarchal behaviors at
work and in government policies.
The subsection that follows analyses the women managers’ strategies and
techniques to balance both worlds.
Balancing two worlds
The preceding sections illustrate that there are a complexity of tribal,
cultural, and gender issues within
the American Indian world.
Moreover, I have identified various domains within the two worlds which
the women managers negotiate and strive to balance: Men and women in the tribal world,
nontraditional and traditional tribal people, the different tribal societies,
and Anglo-oriented work organizations and traditional reservation life. The interviewees refer to many events
and they use a variety of concepts to describe and explain the continual
transitions and adjustments that they make between the two worlds and among
these various domains. There are
two general categories that emerged from the data analysis relevant to
negotiating, transitioning, and balancing the two worlds and domains. I call these location factors and switching techniques; each is discussed
in one of the following two subsections.
The places and situations, or locations, where women lived, worked, or
found themselves forced them, in many cases, to adapt or balance their
lives. Some of these places
resulted from other’s decisions and actions, for example parents and school
authorities, other situations came about as a consequence of their own choice,
for example marriage partners. The
interviewees’ parents’ tribal origin and their own place of residence determined
what languages they learned. These
factors, along with where they went to school and worked, would determine what
languages they retained and subsequently could use at work. Many of the factors are
interrelated: Residence, school,
work, family, and language. Family
origin and work locations are described in earlier sections of this
article. Residence, school,
language, and marriage locations are described below.
The women in the study moved back and forth between tribal lands in more
rural areas and urban environments.
Fourteen women grew up on a reservation, four women grew up both on and
off reservation, and two women grew up off reservation. Each was encouraged by at least one
family member to place a high value on education, to respect tribal traditions,
and to venture out into the non tribal world location. Such encouragement was instrumental in
setting career expectations early in life for these women. One woman’s recollections of her father
My dad…used to tell me, we’re not going to be
able to rely on the livestock forever.
You kids need to move on, get into the white man’s world, learn all about
their trades, their way of life, so that someday you might be able to use that and come back and maybe live a different
way and yet still hang on to your tradition.
Early experiences in school distinguished these women as “achievers” and they perceived themselves to be different from other women. While young, they readily sought to overcome discriminatory behavior and to use other problems they encountered as opportunities.
Prior to college, most of them attended more than one type of school and
moved frequently with their families.
They attended boarding schools, both parochial or private preparatory
schools, Bureau of Indian Affair (BIA) schools, some of which were boarding
schools, and public, non-tribal schools.
The women grew up when both government and missionary boarding schools
tried to assimilate American Indian children into the dominant culture. School was often the first point of
contact with the dominant culture, and several of them described, in depth,
problems with non-American Indians and struggles to retain their tribal
identity. Verna Teller recalled
that at elementary school on the Isleta reservation she was “slapped around by
the teachers for talking Indian.”
Even so, in this location she felt safe and comfortable, whereas, later
in off-reservation schools, she encountered racism:
When you were in junior high is when you finally
went off the reservation into a school in Albuquerque public schools, and that’s
the first time that we were [with] kids that were not Indians…it is a culture
shock. I remember going through
that, and our [non tribal] friends used to tease us…when we’d talk Indian,
they’d mock us.
One women frequently ran away because she
intensely disliked boarding school.
Several women told how missionary or BIA authorities did not permit
students to speak their tribal language. One woman recalled her experience:
…cause we were brought up in the [time] where you couldn’t talk your own language. You’d get slapped on the hand with a ruler…you couldn’t be mean. You couldn’t answer back, but then Indian children always were raised to be respectful…
One woman adopted various western religions as a
result of where she resided and went to school. Her story illustrates how residence,
religion and language interrelate and locate her in two worlds and various
domains and force her to adapt:
We learned to talk Navajo, too. We were very
fluent when we were very young, until they took us to boarding school. That’s when [we] quit talking, because,
you know, English was the one they wanted us to learn. That’s what we did…I was about five
years old…because at that time the roads were pretty bad and it was hard for the
bus to get there…we always had to pray a lot. I don’t think it was Catholic, though,
because a Catholic came in for me when I was a little bit older, like
seven. And we moved back to my
mom’s reservation And there was all
these nuns…at Santa Fe….that’s where I learned - where we were - Catholics…I
think that - it depended- when we were Navajo, we were Mormons and whatever,
because they’d always come to our house…come around and bug us, and the only
reason we invited them in, was, they always gave us food or clothes, and then
they would baptize us, or something.
But it didn’t mean nothing to us.
I maybe got baptized I don’t know how many times. It was just what they gave us that was
Another women recalled a critical moment in the
fourth grade that affected her identity and retention of her tribal
I caught myself thinking in English; I remember
that day very vividly. And I
thought what’s happening to me? I’m
thinking in English…I realized the impact of what had happened to me. I guess I had become assimilated or
acculturated, and I hated it. And I
cried and cried because I didn’t want it.
I wanted to be Navajo…and there was no turning back. And I tried to retrain myself to think
in Navajo and I couldn’t do it…I knew I had lost something there.
As adults the women’s residences were nearly equally divided: At the time of the interview eight women lived on a reservation and nine women lived in cities within several hours of the reservation. Three women spent their adulthood living in both locations. In a few cases, tribal rules made it difficult for the women to live on tribal lands. In a few other cases, women chose to live off - reservation for job convenience or because they no longer felt comfortable there. One manager explained: “[I] have changed too much…the community gets involved in every aspect of a person’s life.”
Language permits the women to locate in different worlds and tribes and to negotiate different worlds and domains. American Indian languages could not be more different from English: Some are so dissimilar, Navajo and English, for example, that they force the speaker into two different images of reality (Hall, 1959, p. 96). Linguists have found that people who are bilingual people, in contrast to monolinguals, display greater cognitive flexibility, creativity, and divergent thought patterns (Lambert, 1977). The women in the study are fluent in English and have some degree of proficiency in at least one tribal language. For some of them, lack of fluency in a tribal language prevents them from working in some tribal contexts, and it can hinder their participation in other tribal activities. Two women still consider English to be their “foreign” language and prior to conversing in English they translate their ideas from their tribal language.
At one of the work sites and
prior to an interview, I saw the advantage of one women’s bilingual
ability. I participated in a
ceremony where an American Indian medicine man was blessing the building and
purging the center of spirits related
to the hunta virus which was prevalent in the study area at the time. The women manager there actively
participated in the ceremony with her multicultural staff and American Indian
clients, and carefully explained the ceremony to her non American Indian
Those interviewees who attained
fluency in English as children later went to work in off-reservation jobs,
mostly in hierarchical bureaucracies that provided social and educational
services to American Indians, and a few went to bureaucracies that conduct
research and development. Those
women who grew up speaking a tribal language or two languages tended to return
to the reservation after completing college to work with American Indian
service-oriented programs or tribal government programs. The women who grew up predominantly
speaking fluent English belong to families where parents came from different
racio-ethnic groups or tribes, thus English was the common language of the
parents. The women who are fluent
in a tribal language use it in talking with clients, others use the tribal
language in greetings and ceremonies.
Male partners, many of whom had different predominant tribal or
racio-ethnicities from their spouses, are another means of locating women in
different worlds. Thirteen women
have or had American Indian partners; only five of these women have partners
with the same predominant tribal affiliation. Six women partnered with white,
Hispanic, or Asian men. The
remarried women commented that their former spouses had not been supportive of
their professional lives. Three
other married women described marital difficulties over their professional
careers and indicated that they had to “train” their husbands to accept their
busy work lives and to help with household chores. One manager’s comments illustrate some
of the family conflicts that women managers confronted at their home
And [he] always thought of me as the wife and
the secretary. As I became a
leader, it was - “how are you a leader?
Because you can’t even find the mall!” “But you can’t lead”…even my kids,
they’re like, “mom, mom’s a manager?
But mom, you’re silly”…I totally succumb to [him] and he takes the lead
role…I always gave in…but I don’t do that anymore. Now what I try to do is compromise. Well, today…[he]’s proud of me…that I
have all these people under me…maybe the change was just difficult for him in
the beginning because I always valued everything he told me…our exchange of ideas are better now. I really think he’s proud of me. I get that in the way he treats me, the way he is concerned about my work
and makes sure that I’m okay and happy…he cooks, he does laundry…
The interviewees carefully chose spouses who supported their professional aspirations and trained or rejected those who did not. Most of them crossed racio-ethnic or tribal boundaries to obtain partners whom they perceived to be supportive of their careers.
Switching techniques are methods to transition and balance between worlds
and various domains. They include,
in the women’s own words, “switching gears,” “shifting roles,” “walking two
paths,” “adapting,” “shutting down,” “disregarding,” “balancing,” and “going
home.” A few examples illustrate
the contexts in which women use their individually developed switching
techniques. The women believe that
early childhood experiences are a training ground for their switching
techniques. One manager, whose
parents come from different tribal language families, feels that a childhood of
learning to understand two cultures and languages helped her:
Just living in [Pueblo] and growing up as a
[Pueblo] Navajo, I’ve had to grow up already with two cultures. My father’s values and my mother’s
values were not necessarily the same… growing up like that…I’ve learned to take
those values that are meaningful, that are going to help, and others that
weren’t going to add anything…I just disregarded.
Another woman of Pueblo tribal origin recalled
My brothers and I used to feel like we were
walking two paths. Because my folks
were strongly believing in our Indian ways. They were also very devout Catholics, so
we did both…as soon as we finished Indian prayers, we’d be off to the church to
do our Catholic ways…I feel like I am two religions because we believe in both
of them almost the same…I like our Indian religion, and the beliefs and the
spirituality is much more genuine.
A public official’s grandmother was her teacher
and source of strength:
Those kinds of values that my grandmother taught
me is what I used, and I could come to a balance between the world - the Western
way of thinking as well as my own traditional values, kind of balance them out
and that’s what really kept me - that’s how I prevailed and that’s how I endured
and that’s how I tolerated a lot of things, even in tough times.
One woman, who went to “white schools,” did not
reveal her tribal world to people as a school child; she said that she “withdrew.” Now, in her professional work, she can
call upon this technique when she needs to:
That’s how I learned to go into situations
without it bothering me. You just
shut down part of it, and you watch yourself do something.
Switching on and off from a highly visible
leadership role at work, where she has responsibility for hundreds of employees,
to a subordinate role on the reservation where she prefers to live, is
illustrated by a Pueblo woman:
You have to just be able to somehow balance the
two worlds, ‘cause I’m
not the leader when I take part in everything…it’s going to be a man…and
I accept that in that [Indian] environment. I come out of that environment
and…go to the workplace, and I’m different. And that’s the difficult part, I think,
for a Native American woman is to balance the two.
Other women switched between two languages and
two cultures to work with staff as the following example illustrates:
There are times when we get together…I’ll translate something that I say in English to the staff to make things clearer, in my Navajo way of thinking to get a point across. I can’t just say, “don’t criticize people.” They’ll say “why is she saying that?” When I say don’t criticize people, what I’m actually saying is, as a Navajo, that’s not our teaching. “Doo Dine’ baa niji’ t’ i i da.” You have to look into your own backyard; you have to look at your own identity before you say something about somebody else…You have to try to relate and put into detail what you’re trying to get across.
Another Pueblo manager, who spoke about
“shifting roles” between work and the tribal cultures, illustrates the women’s
respect for and identification with their tribal culture, and her concern with
the tribe’s continuity:
… you have to be very careful when you shift roles. From here, outside world, to go back home, and not be as assertive and as open. So I have to be very careful, shifting. ‘Cause I believe very strongly in my identity as a Indian. But I also believe very strongly in my identity as a woman…I guess if anything I identify most strongly, if it came to mind, would be my Indianness, and my culture, by background, my heritage, and then identify as a woman. And you know all the other hats - you’re a mom, your work, I coach. I mean I do a lot of different roles. Wife, you know. All the other roles that come. Mostly I guess, where ever I go or whatever I do, I identify - I identify first with being Indian…But I just have to remember that when I am in my own community that I have to make a shift, and sometimes there’s times when I have to hold back and not say certain things, or not be so, what they would say…outspoken, direct. And that there’s certain things only men can do that women can’t do…And I’ve just been real accepting of it. I don’t want to deviate too much from past traditions. Because I think that, if you start deviating, you’re changing a lot. You lose a lot. There’s nothing wrong with change but, a culture can stay, be intact so long. There is not a whole lot of deviation in that. Something that people have to accept for it to continue. So that my kids and grand kids and their grand kids will have it still, when I’m gone.
This woman juxtaposes her concern for tribal cultural survival, acknowledgment of how her own gender influences her status at work (where she functions in a managerial capacity interacting with Anglo, Hispanic and American Indian men and women), with her role as mother and spouse on the reservation where her achieved status becomes insignificant in tribal religious and social matters.
The location factors and switching techniques that the interviewees experienced and developed enable them to lead highly visible and successful, professional lives. Each woman emphasized the importance of tribal “traditional” cultural values to her life, even when values regarding gender role behavior differed significantly from expectations of her work organizations and job. The tribal worlds, today, they encounter, as we have seen, to different degrees depending on their place of work, their place of residence and their spouses and families.
The women who live off-reservation with partners who are non-American
Indian or who work in enterprises that focus minimally on American Indians may
be more rooted in the non-tribal world than the women who live with an American
Indian spouse on the reservation and work in tribally-based organizations. Yet the women who lived in more urban
areas periodically “went home” to the reservation for renewal - this they said
was vitally important to them to balance their lives. Most women constantly juggled
transitions because they worked in mid to large bureaucratic organizations that,
for the most part, have Anglo work norms.
Each interviewee’s experience with transitions is different; she experienced unique location factors
and developed particular switching techniques to deal with cultural transitions
and changing gender role expectations.
In sum, some women adapt to and balance their worlds and domains more
easily than others. The women hold
a profound respect for their tribal traditions and values. Tribal values are the heart of their
tribal identity and unity.
This study has found that American Indian women managers have multiple
tribal origins, speak several languages in addition to English, hold significant
managerial positions, and continually negotiate within and between the more
individualist, materialist Anglo culture and the more collectivist, holistic
tribal culture. The women
developed, independently from one another, location strategies and switching
techniques to transition between and balance two worlds. They learned many of
these techniques as children as they adjusted to various locations and
demands. Almost all of the women
focus their professional work on American Indian-related activities whether or
not they are employed by a tribally-affiliated organization. In this respect, they work with others
who share similar cultural values.
Yet, in almost all of their jobs, the women work in situations where
Anglo work values co-exist with tribal traditional values, both of which
influence interpersonal interaction patterns. The phenomenon of two cultural patterns
co-existing at work also was noted by Kibra (1994) who studied work
organizations in which traditional Asian cultural values co-existed with Anglo
The interviewees are bicultural and multilingual. All of them, except for one, identify
with their mother’s tribal affiliation, demonstrating the endurance of
pre-colonial matrilineal traditions among the tribes. This contrasts to pre-colonial
egalitarian traditions (e.g. food generation and intertribal decision making)
that gradually transformed to conform with the more patriarchally-oriented
values of the colonists. In
general, the interviewees in this study appear to have acculturated to the
dominant white society rather than been assimilated into it (Domino, 1992;
Simons, Vázquez & Harris, 1993).
They continue to retain particular tribal identities and hold tribal
traditions in high regard. Because these women are not a statistically
representative group from the entire U.S., however, we must exercise caution in
generalizing the results. In fact,
many other American Indian women, particularly in large urban areas, have
assimilated into the dominant culture and “pass” for white (Trimble, 1987). Because of the great diversity of
American Indian cultures, I would expect the findings from this study to vary
from region to region. I am hopeful that other researchers will find merit in
exploring these and other facets of this robust subject.
The implications of this research suggest a broader framework for
understanding the intersections of gender and racio-ethnicity in organizations
and management. I recommend that
the following factors be taken into account in further research and discourse in
contexts. By elevating
historical perspectives to the forefront of the discourse surrounding culture,
racio-ethnicity and gender, tensions, struggles, and problems are explicated
that can contextualize current organizational issues. Such broader contexts enable a more
profound understanding of various groups’ status in the workforce and the
dynamics of organizational behavior.
Historical contexts can reveal themes that form the subtext of current
dilemmas and structural inequalities among women (and men), and racio-ethnic
groups. Patterns of racism that pervade society and organizations can be
deconstructed through such analyses. Alternative analytical frameworks, such as
post-colonial analyses and postmodernism, question the fundamental assumptions
to which the “West” has grown accustomed.
This study has reviewed material that employed alternative analytical
frameworks to examine the roles of American Indian women in tribal society and
to challenge the Western patriarchal and ethnocentric biases which obfuscated
the reality of tribal roles.
Women’s egalitarian and prominent decision-making roles in an earlier era
are revealed; these may be re-emerging and in reconstruction through their
current work lives.
2) Complex identities. The analysis of the complex identities of women managers, and managers in general, deconstructs frozen assumptions about homogenous identity categories such as women, American Indian, or indigenous people. Also, both differences and similarities across racio-ethnic groups and within such groups are revealed. The implicit assumption, in much of the management literature, that white men’s or white women’s experience applies to other racio-ethnic groups is antiquated and distorts the experience of people with diverse and multifaceted identities. In the case of the women in the study, data analysis uncovered their complex identities from mixed tribal and racio-ethnic origins and languages. Equally important, the data analysis showed that these women consider their identities as tribal people to be paramount.
3) Domestic cultural values. Cultural values in organizational contexts are investigated primarily in cross-national contexts. More attention needs to be drawn to elevating the discourse around domestic cultural values to the forefront of research and practice. As suggested earlier in this article, the organizational studies literature has been dominated by white researchers. However well meaning they are, their biases and assumptions underpin epistemological and methodological issues thus pushing domestic cultural issues to the background. As the U.S. workforce continues to diversify toward a more balanced white-nonwhite society, people with cultural values that differ significantly from white or Anglo values may increasingly negotiate issues such as land exploitation for business purposes, work versus family, and the nature of work, including its underlying competitive, individualist orientation. This study has revealed the subtleties of the interplay of traditional American Indian tribal values and Anglo work-oriented values. It is apparent that the interviewees are very skillful at diagnosing and working within both contexts.
4) Management skills for the multicultural world. Despite the evolving workforce diversity literature, managerial skills for managing cross-culturally or within multicultural environments lack attention because this literature focuses on what the dominant group needs to do to be more inclusive of diverse identity groups (e.g. creating new structures or training employees). Research is lacking on bicultural people who, already, effectively work across multicultural environments and their unique skills. The bicultural interviewees in this study, by virtue of their successful careers, have proven their effectiveness in managing “two worlds.” The switching techniques and balancing skills that they developed, independent of formal education, are models of managerial techniques that may be increasingly required for future managers.
The legacy of colonization in the U.S. has permeated organizational
settings. This is manifest in
dominant cultural group expectations that nonwhites assimilate such values,
especially in work organizations. The underlying values of competition,
individualism, exploitation of the environment, and material acquisition are, in
general, not critically debated. In
a multicultural environment, it is necessary to raise the question regarding the
extent to which diverse cultural group members are expected to assimilate
dominant group norms and what consequences result if assimilation is resisted or
not valued. Furthermore, what
accommodations are necessary by majority-oriented organizations to respect the
dignity and identity of diverse cultures in order to prevent deculturation? As majority-minority group compositions
shift, this will become an increasingly vital issue.
The legacy of subordination of the U.S. continent’s indigenous people offers a significant lesson. It is a lesson that necessitates our learning to respect and values one another’s unique cultural identities and distinctive historical legacies in a common effort to peacefully coexist and survive. The women in this study are role models for future American Indian women managers and leaders, and for other aspiring managers and leaders who want to work effectively in our multicultural world. The future role of women managers may well be modeled by the experiences of women managers, like the American Indian managers in this study, who are skilled at negotiating between cultures and within various domains. A continuing effort to achieve a deeper understanding of these skills and techniques may assist others to be effective in multicultural organizations, and in the global economy.
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Demographics of American
Indian Women Managers
Age at first
Marital Status and
Director of Human
Director of Health Services
Manager of Capital
Director of Health
Director of Health
Predominant Tribal and Other
Racio-ethnic Origins of Women Managers’ Parents*
* Pueblo tribes include: Acoma, Hopi, Isleta, Jemez, Laguna, Santa Clara, San Felipe, San Juan, Taos and Tesuque.
American Indian Language
Groups, Tribal Languages
and Identities of Women Managers
Traditional Navajo and
Communication is face to face and verbal; agreement of everyone a vital requirement; consensus-oriented.
Communication is written and spoken. Differences of opinion are encouraged, as is competition.
Family organization based on clan of wife’s relatives. Land held in common.
Family organization based on nuclear family. Ownership is individual .
Ascribed authority - Spiritual leaders have significant power; today’s tribal government is based on US constitutional system.
Secular authority, achieved status, US federal system of government.
Primarily agrarian-oriented; sheep important; “work” is part of life activity and may be subordinate to other activities.
Industrialized economy; technical orientation; work holds high priority in life; people value money.
Present-oriented. Time measured by the season or task to be accomplished (cyclic).
Time measured by minutes and hours and is important (lineal)
Teaching is verbal; learning is by mimic and rote; instructors are respected elders.
Teaching is multifaceted - emphasis is on practical/applied. Teachers have college degrees.
Religion is an integral part of life in general and everyday life.
Religion and work are separate.
Adapts and respects environment;
People and nature are integrated.
Seeks to control and exploit environment. People are separate from nature.
Sources: Navajo material is adapted from Winfield (1995), from Stewart & Bennett (1991), and from the American Indian Business Association, NM; Anglo material is adapted from Simon, V<zquez, and Harris (1993), and Stewart & Bennett (1991).
[i] My background has influenced the construction of this study. Because I am not American Indian, I feel impelled to disclose some of my background. My immediate family’s experience with oppression and dislocation has influenced my research interests: My parents, a white American scientist and a German-Jewish refugee, and a Southeast Asian former spouse fled, respectively, Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, and a military state that had been a European colony. I have many years of administrative work in multicultural environments where whites are “minorities.” My experience interviewing women of different racio-ethnicities and nationalities on various continents has informed my more recent research. I embarked upon this particular study because of the absence of organizational studies literature pertaining to American Indians, and because my encounters with dynamic tribal women in the region created an opportunity. I consulted periodically with two American Indian women during this research. The support of my academic department’s administrative assistant, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, has been invaluable throughout the study.
[ii] Mrs. Teller was elected the first woman governor of Isleta Pueblo in 1987 for a four year term (Sando, 1992). She is a prominent figure in the study area because of her outspokenness on issues of tribal sovereignty, water rights, and survival, and she has on several occasions discussed her role as a tribal leader. Currently she is an Isleta tribal council member and owns her own consulting business on American Indian affairs.
[iii] Questions to identify the backgrounds of each woman included: Year and place of birth, racio-ethnicity of self, father, mother, and spouse, number and gender of children and siblings, and marital status. Questions on language included languages spoken, learned, and used at work. Other questions addressed various facets of the women’s lives: Educational background, work history, managerial experience, people who influenced their career, expressed managerial style, compatibility of job with the role of women in their culture, methods to interface and transition between tribal cultures and the dominant culture, problems and issues at work due to gender or racio-ethnicity, relationships with spouses, and cultural values. We also asked for suggestions on sharing the results of the interviews, and names of other potential study participants.
[iv] This became evident as the interviewees generously gave of their time and did not hesitate to describe many personal struggles in their professional experience and their efforts to attain respect for their competency in both the American Indian and Anglo worlds. A few women commented to me that religion was the only issue they could not discuss in any detail - they would only discuss it with some other tribal members. Also, I assume that some issues regarding prejudice and discrimination by the Anglo culture may not have been disclosed to me as my appearance is that of an “Anglo.” The private nature of the tribal religious world was reaffirmed recently in a court case involving the San Ildefonso Pueblo tribe. The tribe filed a claim against a non American Indian man and Los Alamos National Labs who “found” a “sacred and powerful prehistoric double pot” outside current tribal boundaries and who did not want to return the sacred object to the tribe. When the court required the tribe to reveal the nature of the object, the tribe withdrew its lawsuit rather than “place pueblo members in the position of violating traditional laws concerning secrecy in matters of pueblo custom and belief” (Sandlin, 1997, p.D3).
[v] It is estimated that around the year 1500, just prior to Spanish settlement, over 300 different nations existed with between 10 to 20 million people (Amott & Matthaei, 1996). The Glass Ceiling Commission (1995) reports that by the time the “ ‘West was won,’ 250,000 survivors remained within what is now the borders of the contiguous 48 states (p. 96).” Survival originally depended on cooperation and harmony with all things animate and inanimate (Silko, 1996). In the southwest, the “basketmaker culture,” occupied the Four Corners area around 200 B.C. and evolved into the present Pueblo tribes. The Navajo came into the southwest in the 15th century.
[vi] A Kiva is an underground ceremonial chamber of the Pueblo Indian tribes; it can also refer to the Pueblo Indian religious ceremonies. According to Sando (1992) the Pueblo tribes took their entire religion underground in 1692 when the Spaniards attempted to impose their religion on them.