October 21st, 2019 Last Updated on: March 8th, 2021
When we hear Native American heroes, we might think of Geronimo, Sitting Bull and other legendary male warriors and chiefs. Unfortunately, far too often, Native American women get overlooked. You won’t find the names of some of these trailblazing artists, healers, warriors and more in many history textbooks.
That needs to change.
Here are 20 awe-inspiring Native American women who have cemented themselves as some of the most influential cultural figures to date.
Wilma Mankiller (1945–2010)
First on our list of famous Native American women is Wilma Mankiller, a Cherokee citizen born in Oklahoma.
Mankiller relocated with her family to California at the age of 11 under the Bureau of Indian Affairs Relocation Program. In her teenage years, she took part in the Indian Center of San Francisco. She also supported the Black Panther Party in its early days. She later became an activist for the reclamation of Alcatraz Island.
In 1977, Mankiller came back to Oklahoma and got involved in numerous community development projects to benefit her Cherokee neighbors.
In 1983, she was appointed as Cherokee Nation’s deputy principal chief, and two years later she became modern Cherokee Nation’s first female principal chief.
Notably, she governed the United States’ second-largest tribe for ten years. Remarkably, she got the award for Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.
Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865–1915)
Did you know about the Susan La Flesche Picotte Center?
This hospital near Walthill, Nebraska, was named for the 19th-century American reformer and physician, Susan La Flesche Picotte.
Native to Omaha, Picotte is widely recognized as the first Native American to hold a medical degree. On top of that, she worked for public health and served for the land’s legal and formal allotment to the Omaha tribe’s members.
As part of the 19th century’s temperance movement, she worked to prevent drinking on the reservation, where she served as a doctor.
Over and above that, she ran a campaign for the prevention as well as treatment of tuberculosis which was incurable at that time.
Nancy Ward (1738–1822)
Nanyehi, a Cherokee woman later known as Nancy Ward, became a strong political leader for the Cherokee tribe. She earned the prestigious title, “Ghigau,” meaning “beloved woman.” She advocated for Native American women during a period of intense conflict between Whites and Natives.
Apparently, in her last years of life, Nenyehi had recurring visions of what we now know of as the Trail of Tears. Her visions were eerily specific—and correct.
She played a role in the American Revolution and bravely advocated for peace between European Americans and Natives. And here's a random fact: she was the one who introduced dairy products to the Cherokee economy.
Buffalo Calf Road Woman (1844–1879)
Buffalo Calf Road Woman, a Cheyenne woman, was a fierce warrior who gave the final blow to Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Also known as Brave Woman, Buffalo Calf Road Woman not only fought alongside her husband in battle, she also saved her brother’s life.
She, her husband, and her children were relocated to present-day Oklahoma after eventually surrendering to the American government. Unfortunately, her story ended in tragedy after she died of malaria while her husband was in prison for fighting and killing a Cheyenne chief. After hearing about his wife’s death, he hung himself in prison, according to the Helena Independent Record.
Despite her tragic end, Buffalo Calf Road Woman is still known as a legendary warrior to this day.
Lozen was a warrior and prophet for the Chihenne Chiricahua Apache. She and her brother fought against Americans who had taken their land in New Mexico. She could “ride, shoot, and fight like a man.”
She is known for escorting a new mother and her infant across the Chihuahuan Desert from Mexico to the Mescalero Apache Reservation to escape the fighting and death. Not only did Lozen safely deliver them to their final destination, but she also escaped gunfire, stole a horse, killed for food, and acquired much-needed tools and provisions along the way.
Lozen and others attempted to negotiate a peace treaty with the Americans but failed, and sadly she died of tuberculosis while imprisoned in Alabama.
Sarah Winnemucca (1844–1891)
Sarah Winnemucca, of the Numa tribe (to the Whites they were known as Northern Paiute) was born during a time when Native Americans held great distrust for White people, who were trying to force Natives to adopt a different culture, language, and religious beliefs.
When her family and neighbors were forced onto a reservation, she became an advocate for her people and even became a language interpreter for the military in that area. She later went on to fight for reform for the Paiute community.
Sarah Winnemucca’s voice still resonates today through her autobiography, “Life Among the Paiutes.” According to the Smithsonian, it's “the first English narrative by a Native American woman.” The book “voices a thoughtful critique of Anglo-American culture while recounting the fraught legacy of federal lands, including Nevada’s Pyramid Lake and Oregon’s Malheur region, recently the site of a militia takeover.”
Lyda Conley (1868–1946)
Eliza “Lyda” Burton Conley was born a member of the Wyandotte tribe and descendant of a chief, and Andrew Conley. She is best known for being the very first Native American to argue a case in the Supreme Court—and only the third woman at that time, according to Women's History.
Coined the “Guardian of Huron Indian Cemetery”—a cemetery in downtown Kansas City, Kansas—Conley used her legal background to fight to protect the land. As it turned out, her own family, including important tribesmen, were buried there.
Unfortunately, in 1906 Congress decided that the cemetery land could be sold and the bodies moved. Lyda would not have this, so she fought with everything she had. And finally, in 1910, she went to the Supreme Court. While she lost her battle in court that day, Kansas state senator and fellow Native American, Charles Curtis, who later became U.S. Vice President, helped her by passing a law to protect the cemetery. With his help along with Conley’s continuous efforts to keep people off the land, they were able to stop the government's plan. In the end, Conley was buried next to her sister in the Huron Indian Cemetery.
Maria Tallchief (1925–2013)
When talking famous Native American women, it's impossible not to mention the breathtaking ballerina, Maria Tallchief.
She was born in Oklahoma and moved to New York City at the age of 17 to pursue a career in ballet dancing. Tallchief is widely credited as the first major prima ballerina of America. Beyond that, she was the first Native of America to earn the distinction.
Tallchief toured the world to become the first American to perform in Bolshoi Theater of Moscow. In the 1970s, she worked for Chicago’s Lyric Opera as its Director of Ballet.
In 1996, she was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor for her lifetime achievements.
Zitkála-Šá, a musically inclined Dakota woman, worked tirelessly as an activist for women and Native civil rights. Per utahwomenshistory.org, she “promoted a pan-Indian movement to unite all of America’s tribes in the cause of lobbying for citizenship rights, leading to the passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act.”
Growing up in both South Dakota and Indiana, Zitkála-Šá was brought up in two different worlds with different mindsets on how women should act and what they should do with their life. She rejected the idea that women should serve men and not attend college; she did go to college, graduated, and began her “years-long pursuit of recording Native American oral histories and translating them into English.”
Most importantly, she began to advocate for Native Americans to be able to become full citizens of the United States. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act was passed partially due to her passionate lobbying around Native suffrage rights. She continued to fight for her people’s rights until her death in 1938.
Pine Leaf (1806–1854)
Amongst the Crow tribe’s finest warriors was Pine Leaf, who also became a chief.
She was born in the Gros Ventres nation in 1806, but when she was 10, the Crow people captured her and made her one of their own.
She was an excellent marksman and horse rider. She also mastered the skill of field-dressing a buffalo. When the Blackfoot raided her people, she protected them. That's what earned her the reputation as a fearless warrior. She later secured her post on the council of chiefs.
Pocahontas rose to prominence for her association with Virginia’s colonial settlement at Jamestown, yet much of her story has been changed and fictionalized through the years. She's one of the most famous Native American women of all time, yet her story has been botched far too many times.
In 1613, Pocahontas was captured and held for ransom by the Colonists. It was then that she was forced to assimilate. Colonists made her convert to Christianity and get baptized under the name “Rebecca.” She married a man named John Rolfe when she was just 17 and bore his son, Thomas Rolfe, in 1615.
When the Rolfes traveled to London in 1616, Pocahontas was presented to English society as a “civilized savage,” in hopes of securing investments for the Jamestown settlement. Pocahontas garnered celebrity status among the settlement and Englishmen. However, in 1617, when the Rolfes set sail for Virginia, Pocahontas died at Gravesend of unknown causes, likely around her 21st birthday. She was buried in St George's Church, Gravesend in England, but her legacy lives on.
Many of the stories told about her by John Smith have been contested by her documented descendants. Many people have claimed to be her descendants, including First Lady Edith Wilson, Glenn Strange, Wayne Newton, and astronomer Percival Lowell.
A Lemhi Shoshone woman, who aided the Lewis and Clark Expedition to achieve the objectives of their chartered mission by discovering the Louisiana Territory, was Sacajawea.
From North Dakota to the Pacific Ocean, Sacagawea journeyed thousands of miles with the expedition. Adding to her services to natural history, she aided in the establishment of cultural contacts with Native American populations.
Sacajawea belongs atop the “Mount Rushmore” of famous Native American women.
Elizabeth Peratrovich (1911–1958)
After seeing a “No Natives Allowed” sign on a hotel near her hometown on Juneau, Alaska, Elizabeth Peratrovich and her husband knew they had to do something. This display sparked outrage and served as the catalyst for Peratrovich to fight discrimination in Alaska.
In 1943, she attempted to get an anti-discrimination bill passed in Alaska, but it ended up tied 8–8 and not passing. Two years later, two Native individuals represented Alaska’s senate and helped fight alongside Peratrovich.
After giving a fierce and passionate speech to the people of the courtroom, the 1945 Anti-Discrimination Act was passed, 11–5.
Bonus: she was recently honored with her very own Google Doodle.
Annie Dodge Wauneka (1910–1997)
Annie Dodge Wauneka was an influential member of the Navajo Nation as a member of the Navajo Nation Council. She focused her platform on education and healthcare. Her two main objectives were to eradicate tuberculosis within her nation and to create a dictionary to help medical professionals translate medical terms from English to the Navajo language.
Some of her greatest achievements include being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon B. Johnson as well as the Indian Council Fire Achievement Award and the Navajo Medal of Honor. She also became the second woman to be elected to the Tribal Council.
Mary Golda Ross (1908–2008)
Mary Golda Ross, a Cherokee woman, became the very first Native aerospace engineer. She even got an invite to join a top-secret, space exploration planning unit.
Ross’s family is full of history, so it's no wonder she became the trailblazer she did. According to American Indian Magazine, her great-grandfather “led the Cherokee Nation during the traumatic and turbulent Indian Removal era of the 1830s that resulted in the forced relocation of thousands of Cherokee people west of the Mississippi River in present-day Oklahoma.”
Some of her amazing achievements in the world of aerospace include helping to design the P-38 fighter airplane, being an integral part in the “space race,” and being the only woman and Native American to join 39 others in Lockheed’s Advanced Development Program.
A NASA engineer and co-worker commented on Mary’s incredible mathematics skills: “Mary worked on the Agena rocket orbital dynamics, calculating the transfer orbit as the rocket left the Earth’s atmosphere. Today’s engineer would use the computer program, MATLAB, and insert the parameter to determine when the rocket would reach its destination.”
Winona LaDuke (1959–Present)
Born in 1959, Winona LaDuke is a groundbreaking environmentalist, writer, and economist. She rose to prominence with her work to advance tribal land preservation and claims and sustainable development.
What’s more, she serves as the executive director of Honor the Earth, a Native environmental advocacy institute that contributed to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. LaDuke has also made appearances in several documentaries.
Noticeably, she earned the BIHA Community Service Award, the Reebok Human Rights Award, and an honorary doctorate degree from Augsburg College in 2015. She's undoubtedly one of the most influential Native American women we've seen.
Elouise Cobell (1945–2011)
Also known as “Yellow Bird Woman,” Elouise Pepion Cobell served as a tribal elder, rancher, banker, and activist. Furthermore, she was also a leading petitioner in 2009’s revolutionary class-action suit Cobell v. Salazar.
This challenged the government's mismanagement of trust funds related to over 500,000 Native individuals. They eventually reached a $3.4 billion settlement with the government in 2010.
Ex-President Barack Obama awarded her a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her son, Turk Cobell, received the award on her behalf.
Deb Haaland (1960–Present)
Deb Haaland recently made history after she was confirmed as the first Native American Cabinet secretary and head of the Interior Department. Haaland is a 35th Generation New Mexican, an enrolled citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and one of the first two Native American Women Elected to Congress.
Her confirmation makes a clear statement that the government is placing a priority on not only environmental issues but also in establishing a much-overdue, collaborative relationship with Indigenous people all across America.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Haaland back in 2019. Watch the video above to learn more about this trailblazer. She's an inspiration to Native American women everywhere.
Speaking of making history, Michaela Goade of the Tlingit and Haida tribes, recently collected the prestigious Caldecott Medal for her illustrations in the picture book, “We are Water Protectors.”
The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It’s awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.
“It's a great honor to be the first Indigenous artist to win this award, but I am of course standing on many shoulders,” Goade told CNN. “I think it's important to acknowledge and reflect on the significance of being the first in 2021, while also looking towards the future with much hope. I won't be the last! It brings me so much joy to think about Indigenous youth who will see themselves in this recognition and know that their stories are powerful and valuable.”
Ashley Callingbull-Burnham (1989–Present)
Born in 1989, Ashley Callingbull became an overnight sensation by winning the Mrs. Universe title in 2015.
She served as a representative at Germany’s Queen of the World Final in 2010 and a year later at the Miss Humanity International in Barbados.
Callingbull also has acting chops, starring in the series “Blackstone” as Sheila Delaronde.
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