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Native American women are emerging leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)


Given the chance, these women and others are proving their mettle

by Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service

Left to right are Gina Enos, Danielle Palomino and Fern Cloud, photographed at the 2019 Native American Women’s Gathering in Suquamish, Wash. Enos and Palomino were voted co-moderators for the 2021 gathering. Cloud is the commissioned ruling elder at Pejuhutazizi Presbyterian Church, Upper Sioux Community in Granite Falls, Minn. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Women are playing increasingly pivotal roles at every level in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). From moderators to heads of agencies, from stated clerks at the middle governing body level to synod and presbytery executives and pastors, women are at the forefront. And not to be excluded from this wave of women leadership are Native American women.

Since 2004, Fern Cloud, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton OyateTribe on the Lake Traverse Reservation in northeastern South Dakota, has served as the commissioned ruling elder (CRE) at Pejuhutazizi Presbyterian Church, Upper Sioux Community in Granite Falls, Minn. She is among the first Native American women to lead a native congregation in Dakota Presbytery.

Cloud says her rise in leadership has been a journey. “Once they saw that I was committed, things begin to happen,” she said. “First they appointed me chairman of the Baltimore Dakota Presbytery Partnership, and that has been a while.” The partnership provides learning camps for the churches in the presbyteries. The summertime learning camps help Native youth retain information learned during the school term.

Cloud is actively engaged in the denomination in several leadership positions. She currently serves as stated clerk and treasurer of Dakota Presbytery, moderator of the Native American Consulting Committee and a member of the Racial Equality Advocacy Committee (REAC), and is the former moderator of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. She also works for the Upper Sioux Community as a tribal historic preservation officer.

As an artist and cultural consultant, Cloud does presentations and workshops on the Doctrine of Discovery, missing and murdered indigenous women, boarding school tragedy, U.S. government policies that affect Native Americans and Healing the Sacred Hoop.

“Women are stepping up more and being appreciated for what they bring to the table,” said Cloud. She says leadership roles in the Dakota Presbytery were primarily held by men. However, after doing a good job within the presbytery, she has held a lot of positions not normally held by women. “I’ve attended every General Assembly since 2006,” said Cloud. “It is important that Native American are represented at the table.”

Danielle Palomino

Danielle Palomino is an emerging Native American leader. She grew up in the Church of the Indian Fellowship on the Puyallup Reservation in Washington state. As a fifth-generation Native and Presbyterian, Palomino said she was expected to be involved in her church as a youth.

“I attended vacation Bible school, Sunday school and summer camp. It’s just what we did as youth in the church,” she said. “Then as an adult I dedicated myself to the church. I just thought that’s what you do to be a Presbyterian and to be a Christian.”

She most recently served on the committee that organized the Native American women’s gathering held last month in Suquamish, Wash. “When we heard about the Presbyterian women, we jumped at the chance to get involved,” she said. “We wanted everyone included.  I was one of seven women who worked on the committee.”

“I wanted to implement change,” she said. “I wanted to implement really good workshops for our ladies to take ideas, tools and a message of hope back to their reservations and their communities.” The event was the largest Native American women’s gathering to date.

Palomino teaches reading and math at a Native school and serves and an interventionist and paraeducator. “I’m still trying to figure out my undergrad program and where I want to go. I love education but I feel a calling to ministry,” she said. “I am trying to figure out a dual program where I can progress. It is taking me some time, but I will get there.  I’ve always worked for tribes whether it’s my own Suquamish Tribe, or the Muckleshoot or Puyallup tribe. That’s been my calling, working within the tribes.”

Palomino says she also feels a call to bring her ministry to the community and to the reservations.

“I enjoy working with youth. They are our future leaders,” she said. “Those are the souls that are going to be out there advocating for us, educating us and supporting us and building our communities in the future and that’s really important. The youth … that’s my calling.”

With a professional background including working as a dispatcher and a medic response security officer working with the military, Palomino said, “Coming from my background and going into education and ministry is quite a transition for me.”

At the gathering, Palomino, along with Gina Enos, were voted co-moderators of the Native American Presbyterian Women beginning in 2021. Palomino has recently been nominated for a national PC(USA) committee.

“I was asked to serve on this committee because they wanted to include a voice for Native Americans,” she said. “If there are other groups or committees that have a calling for Native American participants, I would be more than honored to sit on these committees and to have input on how to implement positive change and to pave a wider path for more women and Native people to be a part of these committees.”

Another dynamic duo of Native American women leaders are the Rev. Danielle Crawford McKinney, a Presbyterian Women board member and a teaching elder in Dakota Presbytery, and her daughter Madison. Both women are involved at the national level of the PC(USA).

Rev. McKinney, whose great-grandfather was one of the first Native American Presbyterian pastors in Dakota Presbytery, is a student rights specialist at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, and an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe.

She encourages church leaders to visit Native congregations and reservations “so that the youth can see people in leadership capacities.” The church should be more intentional, she said, about reaching out to younger women “to inspire and help them to know they can do anything they want to do.”

Rev. McKinney said she believes that Native American culture impacts the advancement of women in the church. “There are elements of our culture that are parallel to what we see in Christianity,” she said. “Traditionally, people believe that the culture didn’t have women in leadership, but there was equality in the leadership of the men and the women. Their roles may have been separate, but there were still leadership qualities they had to maintain. So, yes, the culture does impact the leadership — especially now, because today Native women are given more of a voice than they have ever had.”

Madison McKinney was the first young Native American woman to attend the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women as a representative of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). (Photo by Rich Copley)

Madison McKinney, who was sponsored by the Native American Intercultural Congregational Support office of the Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries, is the first Native American young woman to attend the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women as a representative of the PC(USA). The 20-year-old was part of a group of young PC(USA) women attending the annual Commission for the first time.

Her first endeavor with the church was to serve on the American Indian Youth Council, through the Native American Intercultural Congregational Support office. She then went on to serve as a liaison to the Native American Consulting Committee (NACC). “Serving as liaison to the NACC was my first involvement with a committee of adults and I learned a lot,” she said.

McKinney is currently serving for a second year on the session of her church. At her mother’s encouraging she applied for and was accepted to serve on the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns.

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