Solutions to the Pay Gap for Native American Women Could Be Found in Their Tribes

Much remains unknown about one of the widest pay gaps among women, but the little data available could uncover how to close it.

American Indian Movement Minnesota director Lisa Bellanger becomes emotional as she talks to people visiting the exhibit honoring the Women of Wounded Knee, including her mother Pat Bellanger, (in photo behind her) in Porcupine, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023. It is the 50th anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation. (Elizabeth Flores / Star Tribune via Getty Images)

This story was originally published by The 19th.

For Native American women, the gender pay gap reflects the systems that have oppressed them for centuries. The colonization that stripped them of power, the violence now plaguing them and the economic institutions that have left them behind—those factors have helped form a gap in income and wages that is among the widest of any group of women. 

November 30 marks Native American Women’s Equal Pay Day, spotlighting that those working full- or part-time are still earning only 55 cents for every $1 paid to non-Latino white men. Only Latinas have a wider gap.

But 55 cents is, in many ways, an incomplete figure. 

There is much that is unknown about the nuances of the pay gap for Native American women. For years, the United States has failed to invest in data collection on Indigenous communities, making it difficult to reliably track wage gaps among the 574 federally recognized tribes. What is known about a couple of the largest tribes is also extremely limited. The data is older and it relies on very small sample sizes that open significant room for error. And with differing locations, sizes and makeups, it’s next to impossible to compare the tribes with each other.

Still, the little data available offers some clues as to what may be driving the gap for different groups, revealing points of weakness in existing systems—and opportunities. 

The time when you are more likely to have your most earning potential is also when you have the greatest demand of supporting your family structure. That is particularly prevalent for Native American women.

Lauren Grattan, co-founder of Mission Driven Finance

Like for most women, caregiving responsibilities limit the economic mobility of Native American women, who traditionally have cared for multiple generations often at once. That has an impact on entire communities. Sixty-four percent of Native mothers are breadwinners in their families. About a quarter of Native households are headed by women, with 30 percent of them living under the poverty level, according to census data compiled by the National Partnership for Women & Families

“The time when you are more likely to have your most earning potential is also when you have the greatest demand of supporting your family structure,” said Lauren Grattan, co-founder and chief community officer of Mission Driven Finance, who works directly with Tribal Nations and Indigenous entrepreneurs. “That is particularly prevalent for Native American women.” 

At the same time, more than four out of five Indigenous women experience violence in their lifetimes. They are two to three times more likely than other women to experience violence, stalking or sexual assault. That epidemic is “one of the major underpinnings that keeps Indigenous women from having that economic liberation,” said Vanessa Roanhorse, the CEO of Roanhorse Consulting, an Indigenous woman-led think tank, and co-founder of Native Women Lead, which supports Native women’s economic mobility. 

Stacked on top are factors that are more specific to the makeup or location of tribes. Some of the tribes with the largest gaps include Navajo, Apache, Blackfoot, Pueblo and Sioux, while a couple of the Alaskan tribes have narrower gaps.  

The Navajo Nation is the largest tribe by population and size, encompassing a land mass across New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. But Diné, or Navajo, women earn just 51 cents compared to the $1 for non-Latino white men.

Some of that gap has been manufactured by colonization. Historically, women in the Navajo Nation held significant power in their families and in their governments. Navajo are matrilineal, introducing themselves first through their mother’s clan. But colonialism forced assimilation onto Native American people, altering women’s place in Navajo society from largely equal to one where women were more dependent on men both politically and economically. 

Children were forced to go to boarding school, stripping their mothers of their roles as educators in the family. Mines on Navajo lands in the early 1900s created new jobs largely for men. And then in the 1930s, a program by the U.S. government to kill thousands of livestock on Navajo lands, especially sheep, eliminated jobs and financial stability for the many Navajo women who owned and managed the sheep herds. Over time, their power continued to dwindle. That legacy has a lasting impact.

“We say that we are matrilineal or matriarchal—we have this respect for women—but in reality that is not what is seen,” said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton. “I think a lot of it is the belief that women should not be leaders.” 

The Navajo Council currently has more women on it than ever before, but the Nation has still never had a woman president. Charles-Newton said she’s been approached dozens of times by qualified women applying for positions in the tribal government who continue to get passed over.

One of the main issues affecting Native American women in general, she said, is that there are few jobs—and in particular specialized ones—on the reservation. Charles-Newton has a law degree and has worked as a law librarian and prosecutor, but she had to take a $60,000 pay cut when she returned to the Navajo Nation from Wyoming to care for her mother. 

The concentration of women in lower-paying jobs, such as hospitality and retail, is the main driver of the pay gap, which captures the average wage for all Native American women together and compares that with the median wage of all non-Latino white men. 

That leads to an exodus of young people. Keeping members on the reservation has long been a challenge, said Allie Redhorse Young, the director of Protect the Sacred, a nonprofit she founded during the pandemic in the Navajo Nation to protect Native elders, language and culture. Many students, she said, will go off to college and won’t return home because they can’t get the kind of jobs they’d like to with their degrees. 

“Our leaders are trying to figure out: ‘Why can’t those jobs exist at home?’” Redhorse Young said. 

Pueblo people, who have one of the widest tribal gaps at 53 cents, also experience challenges with limited job opportunities and sexism. Gina Kallestewa, the assistant executive director at the Zuni Housing Authority, said religious beliefs around men as leaders have affected women in her community in rural New Mexico, who face pay discrepancies and unfair treatment. 

“Culturally in Zuni, the final say-so is for the men,” she said. “That seems to be our struggle right now.”

Up next:

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Chabeli Carrazana is The 19th's women and the economy reporter. Previously, she worked as a business reporter for the Miami Herald, where she covered the tourism industry, and the Orlando Sentinel, where she covered NASA, the private space industry and labor issues.