The Blog of Toledo Lucas County Public Library
Throughout history, Native American women have always served as leaders, healers, and artists. But you wouldn’t know it from reading most history textbooks. Typically, only Pocahontas and Sacajawea are discussed, and all too often their stories take a supporting role to dominating white male narratives. It is about time such narratives are challenged. Here are five Native Women the history books often leave out, who defying colonial violence and systemic racism, forged a path for themselves and their communities.
Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915)
At just 8-years-old, Omaha tribe member Susan La Flesche sat at the bedside of a sick woman and waited all night for the doctor to come. By the time dawn broke, the woman was dead, and the message delivered by the doctor who never showed was clear: Native Americans don’t matter. Angered by how her people were treated, La Flesche left her Omaha Indian Reservation home to earn her M.D. from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, becoming the first Native American woman doctor in history. La Flesche then returned home where she worked tirelessly to serve her community.
In addition to providing critical health care to her community, she also advocated for modern hygiene practices and disease prevention standards among the Omaha people. In 1913, Picotte opened a hospital near Walthill, Nebraska, the first to be built on reservation land without any support from the federal government. The facility served all people, regardless of skin color. Now known as the Susan La Flesche Picotte Center, it was named a National Historic Landmark in 1993.
Maria Tallchief (1925-2013)
Born in a town on an Osage reservation in Oklahoma, Maria Tallchief found superstardom as New York City Ballet’s prima ballerina. But before she originated roles in some of the dance world’s most well-known and beloved ballets, Tallchief faced discrimination as a Native American ballerina in an almost all-white profession. She went from ballet company to ballet company looking for work but was turned away because of her Native American ancestry. Many even urged her to change her last name because it gave away her Native identity. Tallchief always refused.
In the end, she rose above it all. In addition to becoming Balanchine’s muse and America’s first major prima ballerina (and America’s first Native American prima ballerina), Tallchief also became the first American ballerina to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet in France and the first American to perform at the world-renown Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.
In 1996, Tallchief received a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievements in the arts. That same year, she was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010)
A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma in 1945. When she was 11-years-old, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Relocation Program moved Mankiller and her family from their ancestral home in Oklahoma to San Francisco, California. There, Mankiller became involved in San Francisco’s Indian Center, assisted and supported the Black Panther Party, and found activist inspiration in Native American students’ occupation and attempted reclamation of Alcatraz Island.
Mankiller returned to Oklahoma in 1977, and promptly initiated a number of community development projects to benefit her Cherokee community. In 1983, she became deputy principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, based on the strength of her community leadership. And two years later, when the principal chief resigned, Mankiller became the first female principal chief of the modern Cherokee Nation. Mankiller left public office in 1995, and in 1998 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Today, The Wilma Mankiller Foundation works with Indigenous communities to carry on Mankiller’s legacy of social justice and development in Indian Country and beyond.
Suzan Shown Harjo (1945-present)
A poet, writer, lecturer, curator, and policy advocate, Harjo has worked tirelessly for more than four decades taking on the issues impacting the lives of Native Americans. In the 1960s, Harjo, who is Cheyenne and Muscogee, co-produced the first Native American news program in the United States: Seeing Red, for New York’s WBAI FM station. In 1967, after taking in an installation of sacred garments at the Museum of the American Indian in New York, Harjo advocated for the return of such items to their rightful tribes and helped change museums’ policies regarding Native artifacts nationwide. And in the 1970s, while living in Washington, D.C., she served as a legislative liaison for law firms that fought for Native American rights.
But that’s not all. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Harjo as a congressional liaison for Indian affairs and she lobbied hard to pass the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA). And in the 1980s, she served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and founded the Morning Star Institute, a Native rights organization for traditional and cultural advocacy.
Did we mention she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014?