When recognizing women past and present, many heroines are white. Increasing numbers of African American women are finally being recognized—Sojourner Truth, Bessie Coleman, Mae Jamison, Condoleezza Rice, Lena Horne, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman. Still, it’s only a fraction of the great women.
What about Native American women? Can you name notable Native American women in history? Pocohontas and Sacagawea don’t count, mainly because their stories are so wrapped up in legend and Disney packaging that it’s hard to tell fact from fiction.
Can you name any others? If you can’t, you’re far from alone. Native women have largely been invisible in history AND herstory.
Countless strong, fearless Native women have made their mark. Their stories only have to be told. Let’s start sharing those stories. Here’s a start…
Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee)
Even if I didn’t share a Cherokee heritage or live in Oklahoma I would hope I would have heard of Wilma Mankiller, awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 2010. She was an amazing woman and my vote to take the place of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.
Wilma Mankiller is perhaps best known as being the first woman to serve as an elected chief of an Indian tribe or nation. She served as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation for 10 years, working tirelessly to improve education, healthcare, and community development for approximately 300,000 tribal members. The last time she ran for chief, she won with 83% of the vote (she didn’t run a third time due to health issues).
Although born in the Oklahoma Cherokee capital of Tahlequah, her family moved to San Francisco when she was a child. It was an era where Native Americans were encouraged to relocate to urban areas. She became an activist and was one of many who occupied Alcatraz Island in 1969, bringing attention to Native American rights.
Wilma never stopped learning and trying to help native people. When she returned to Oklahoma in 1977, she founded the Community Development Department for the Cherokee Nation to improve community water and housing projects.
Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabekwe)
A graduate of Harvard and Antioch, Winona is an activist who has worked extensively on Native American and environmental issues. She created Honor the Earth, an advocacy group for native environmental groups, and continues to serve as its executive director.
Winona has also been active with the Indigenous Women’s Network, a nonprofit organization addressing domestic violence against Native women. Domestic violence is common in Indian country with 61% of women assaulted during their lifetimes.
The recipient of many awards for service and leadership, Winona was chosen as one of America’s fifty most promising leaders under 40 by Time Magazine in 1994.
Lyda Conley (Wyandot)
Lyda Conley was a lawyer. She was the first woman admitted to the Kansas bar and the first Native American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court. Her most well-known case was preventing the sale and development of a Huron cemetery in Kansas, arguing for federal protection. The cemetery, now known as the Wyandot National Burying Ground, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places to preserve the sacred area for cultural and religion reasons.
Maria Tallchief (Osage)
If you’re a classical dance fan, this is another name you might know. Maria was a well-known ballerina, dancing with the New York City Ballet and later founding the Chicago City Ballet. In a field dominated by European dancers, Maria broke through all types of barriers when she began dancing professionally in the 1940s. Her performance in “The Nutcracker” in 1954 was said to transform the show into a holiday classic.
Susan La Flesche Picotte (Omaha)
Susan La Flesche Picotte was the first female Native American doctor in the U.S. As the youngest daughter of Chief Joseph La Flesche, Susan attended white schools off the reservation, but never forgot where she came from. Witnessing the death of a Native American woman because a white doctor refused to treat her influenced her to become a doctor.
After completing medical school at the top of her class and an internship, Susan returned to the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska, working at the government boarding school and treating both Native American and white children. She advocated for clean, well-ventilated conditions to reduce the risks of diseases like tuberculosis, often using her own money for supplies.