One of the nation's best known and most prosperous American Indian tribes will soon have a new public face: that of a woman, its first female tribal chief in almost 300 years.
Lynn Malerba was introduced Thursday as incoming chief of the Mohegan Tribe, whose Mohegan Sun casino complex in southeastern Connecticut is one of the world's largest gaming and hotel facilities and employs nearly 10,000 people.
Malerba, who will be inducted in August, becomes the Mohegans' first female chief since 1723. She also joins a diverse group of women elected or appointed to leadership roles in recent decades among the nation's 564 federally recognized tribes.
Her lifetime appointment comes as the Mohegan Tribe is hoping to open another casino in western Massachusetts, and as tribes throughout the nation look to the Mohegans and their neighbors, the Mashantucket Pequots, as the gold standard for successful gaming operations.
Malerba currently is chairwoman of the Mohegan Tribal Council, the governing body that runs the casino and the tribe's business interests.
Though her title as chief will involve less formal responsibility, it holds unmatched prestige and a chance to be a voice in influencing policy — both within the Mohegans and, if Malerba chooses, while speaking at the national level on behalf of American Indian issues.
"She's a wonderful leader. She's sharp, she's responsive, she's very engaged and she knows what's happening on the national level but she also stays very tuned in to her local community and her tribal members' concerns," said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.
It's unclear exactly how many tribal leaders nationwide are women. As chief of the Mohegans, Malerba joins the ranks of current and former leaders such as Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation; Rhonda Welch-Scalco of the California-based Barona Band of Mission Indians; and Marjorie Anderson of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe of Minnesota.
The Mohegan tribe, which has about 1,700 members, has been without a chief since the death in October 2007 of Ralph Sturges. He shepherded the tribe through federal recognition in 1994 and the opening of its casino two years later.
"We needed an appropriate length of time to mourn," Malerba said of the nearly two-and-a-half years without a chief.
The tribe's Council of Elders, which enforces cultural and judicial matters, bestowed a new Mohegan name on Malerba when it selected her as chief: "Mutawi Mutahash," or "Many Hearts."
Malerba, 56, is the great-granddaughter of a chief who died one year before she was born. She grew up in the Uncasville section of Montville with other tribal members and became a critical care nurse. She was elected to the Tribal Council in 2005.
As chief, she will have the prerogative to make the role active or ceremonial — but neither she nor those who know her say she will sit on the sidelines.
"Each chief really has determined what their role will be based on the times they find themselves in, as well as what the needs of the membership are," she said. "I see the role as being complementary to our elected officials — in an advisory capacity, but having the ability to still influence the longterm direction."