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Paraguay’s Indigenous Maka People Elect First Female Leader

Following the death of their long-time leader Andrés Chemei, the Maka people selected his widow Tsiweyenki as their new chief though traditionally the role is passed down from father to son.

Chemei was a respected leader for 40 years but without an heir (they have three daughters) the 68-year-old Tsiweyenki became one of the first female chiefs of an indigenous group in Paraguay.

Also known for her Spanish name, Gloria Elizeche, Tsiweyenki is thankful for the opportunity though she’s still heartbroken over her loss.

“I feel good because the community shows me respect,” she told The Associated Press in the language of the Maka, speaking through an interpreter.

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A woman takes leadership of Paraguay's Maka people (Photos AP/ Jorge Saenz) – For the tiny Maka culture of Paraguay, political authority has passed from father to son for generations even as the band has struggled for survival, its way of life uprooted by war and migration from a vast, isolated countryside to an urban neighborhood near the capital. So the death in February of Andrés Chemei, a widely respected figure who led the group for 40 years, posed a problem. He had no son. The solution has been at least a small advance for women in Paraguay: Maka leaders chose his widow, Tsiweyenki to be one of the first female chiefs of an indigenous people in the South American country. "The Maka are respectful of women and in this case we have placed our trust in Chemei's widow," said Yelukín, director of a dance company that performs traditional Maka dances at cultural events. While she still breaks down in tears at times thinking of her late husband, Tsiweyenki expressed thankfulness at her new post. "I feel good because the community shows me respect," she told The Associated Press in the Maka tongue, speaking through an interpreter. The 68-year-old Tsiweyenki – known to the Paraguayan state as Gloria Elizeche – has a warm smile, but a difficult task. Most of the roughly 2,000 Maka live in a 35-acre (14-hectare) colony in a city bordering the capital, Asuncion. They're also carrying on Chemei's battle to assert ownership of 830 acres (335 hectare) of lands a little way down the Paraguay River where the Maka lived for four decades before flooding forced most to move into town. Only a century ago, the Maka were largely hunter-gatherers in northwest Paraguay's remote Chaco region. And only a few decades ago, census figures counted their population at less than 1,000. Chemei had been a link to the Maka's history. The son of a chief himself, he spent time as a boy in the home of a Russian emigre general, Juan Belaieff, who established warm ties with the Maka ahead of the 1932-1935 war against Bolivia and then oversaw their move from the remote Chaco region to lands closer to the capital.

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The Maka community live in 35-acre colony near the capital city of Asuncion, residing in wood or block houses and selling handmade goods as their main source of income.

They historically lived in the area known as the Paraguayan Chaco (western region) along with about 19 other indigenous communities and they continue to fight for ownership of the 830 acres of land where they lived for 40 years before it flooded.

With the onslaught of new responsibilities and a lack of experience, Tsiweyenki is taking the next few months to ease into the role before formally managing her duties.

The community assembly  appointed Mateo Martínez, who was Chemei’s secretary for 35 years, as interim chief. Martínez is close to signing a deal with the Paraguayan government to build 150 units of social housing and said that Tsiweyenki is “consulted about all matters” and that “she must approve or reject all of them.”

In addition to this new role, she’ll be principal of a primary and secondary school, lead a labor union and soccer team and head the local Baptist church.

The Maka is one of 20 indigenous communities that still survive in Paraguay with a combined population of 120,000 people, according to the government’s statistics agency. They make up about 2 percent of Paraguay’s population and 75 percent live in poverty, according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.

A woman in power, indigenous or otherwise, is still somewhat uncommon in Paraguay where all 17 governors are men.  Eight women and 37 men were elected in the Senate and in the Chamber of Deputies female representatives hold only 15 percent of the seats, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Most recently, the first female indigenous leader in Paraguay was Margarita Mywangi, who led an Ache community from 1992 to 2014 and was director of the Paraguay’s Cabinet-level Institute of Indigenous Affairs.

“Generally speaking, all indigenous people have a great deal of respect for women because they are decision-makers,” said Marilin Rehnfeld, director of the Department of Anthropology at the Catholic University of Asuncion. “They organize the community, educate the children and deal with all important matters. The title of chief was invented by our society, not the tribes.”

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