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8 Native American Women Who Changed the World

Celebrate Native American Heritage Month

Every November, we celebrate Native American Heritage Month to amplify the achievements and contributions of Indigenous women. As noted by the National Congress of American Indians, this month can be used as an opportunity to learn and talk to your Rebel about “the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.”

In November 2022, the White House acknowledged “America has not always delivered on its promise of equal dignity and respect for Native Americans” through “broken treaties, dispossession of ancestral lands, and policies of assimilation and termination sought to decimate Native populations and their ways of life.” While this is a first step in acknowledging the suffering of the Native American population, much needs to be done to rectify all that has been wrought on the community.

Indigenous women who live on reservations are ten times more likely to be murdered than the national average. The U.S. Department of the Interior found “murder is the third leading cause of death for Native women.” This has led to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW) movement, which sheds light on the crisis and seeks to bring meaningful change to the population. 

To learn more about how Native American women have worked to stand up for and bring change to their communities, read about eight inspiring Indigenous women from around the nation.

Buffalo Calf Road Woman - Native American Heritage Month

Warrior

Buffalo Calf Road Woman was born circa 1844. A member of the Cheyenne tribe, she is best known for her heroics in the Battle of the Rosebud and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. 

The Battle of Rosebud occurred in 1876 in Montana between the U.S. Army and an allied force of Native American tribes, including the Crow, Shoshoni, Lakota Sioux, and Cheyenne, led by Crazy Horse. In this battle, when the Cheyenne began to lag, Buffalo Calf Road Woman rode in to rescue her brother and reinvigorate their forces. While the U.S. Army called this the Battle of Rosebud, the Cheyenne called it The Fight Where the Girl Saved Her Brother.

She also fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as General Custer’s Last Stand, where the U.S. Army suffered a great defeat from the Native American tribes. In 2005, a 150-year vow of silence was broken by the Cheyenne tribe, and they revealed that Buffalo Calf Road Woman actually struck the killing blow to General Custer.

Debra Haaland - Native American Heritage Month

Department of the Interior 

Debra Haaland was born in Arizona and is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. Her mother was in the U.S. Navy, and her father was part of the U.S. Marine Corps. As a military family, they moved all across the country before they settled down in New Mexico, where Debra graduated high school. 

She attended the University of New Mexico, where she was taught by future U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo. Debra became a single mother soon after graduating and started her own salsa company to help support her family. She would eventually graduate from law school in 2006.

In 2018, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. During her swearing-in ceremony, she wore traditional Laguna Pueblo attire, representing her community on a national stage. In 2020, President Biden selected her as Secretary of the Interior. She is the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history and, once again, she was sworn in wearing traditional clothing from her tribe.

Isabella Aiukli Cornell - Native American Heritage Month

Activist and Designer

In 2018, Isabella Aiukli Cornell, of the Choctaw tribe also used fashion to make a statement. With the help of designer Della BigHair-Stump (of the Crow tribe), she created a prom dress to bring attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Isabella’s gown was red, a color that is considered by many tribes to be the only color visible to spirits and is used to help restless souls find their way. The color has since become a symbol of the MMIW movement, which artist Jaime Black helped bring further attention to with the REDress Project

Isabella’s dress is now part of the National Museum of American History. By bringing light to this issue, she and others continue to inspire others to do the same.

Lyda Conley - Native American Heritage Month

Lawyer

Lyda Conley was born circa 1869 and was of mixed Wyandot and European descent. Like many others, this was part of a larger cultural shift in the region, as white settlers continued to encroach on Native lands. 

Lyda and her four siblings were all encouraged to pursue higher education. Lyda graduated from Park College in Missouri and then received her law degree from the Kansas City School of Law. Lyda became the first woman admitted to the Kansas bar.

In 1906, the Wyandot Nation approved the sale of the Huron Cemetery to Kansas City, who wanted to develop the area. The cemetery was a significant burial ground for the Wyandot Nation of Oklahoma, where many of her ancestors were buried. Lyda took the issue to court. 

In 1907, she filed a petition to block the sale, but the district court ruled against her. She appealed and took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, where she became the first female Native American lawyer to argue her case. 

When the Supreme Court also ruled against her, she didn’t give up. She worked with U.S. Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas, who was also of mixed-race descent, to introduce a bill that would protect the cemetery as a national park. 

The bill was passed in 1916, saving the cemetery. Lyda continued to protect it for the rest of her life.

Rosalie Fish - Native American Heritage Month

Activist and Runner

Rosalie Fish is a member of the Cowlitz tribe in Washington State. Rosalie garnered media attention in 2019 when, at a track meet, she competed with a red handprint painted over her mouth. The handprint was to honor and bring attention to the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis. 

Inspired by fellow runner, Jordan Marie Daniel of the Kul Wicasa Oyate Nation in South Dakota, who painted a handprint over her face when she ran the Boston Marathon in 2019, Rosalie declared that she would not stay silent or let the women’s stories be forgotten or overlooked. She continues to run with the red handprint on her mouth and speaks out about issues facing Indigenous women.

Sacheen Littlefeather - Native American Heritage Month

Activist and Actress

Sacheen Littlefeather was born in 1946 in California and descended from the Apache tribe. From a young age, she wanted to be an actress and after college, she attended the American Conservatory Theater. She began picking up small roles in movies and modeled for magazines. 

Sacheen is best known for accepting the Academy Award for Best Actor on Marlon Brando’s behalf. While it is unclear how they met, Marlon was interested in Native American issues and wanted to use his platform to advocate on their behalf. 

When he was nominated for his role in The Godfather in 1973, he decided he would boycott the ceremony as part of a protest against the siege at Wounded Knee and portrayals of Native Americans in Hollywood. Marlon asked if Sacheen would accept the award on his behalf and shed light on the issues affecting her community at the time. Sacheen agreed.

When Marlon was announced as the winner, Sacheen took the stage. She politely thanked the Academy on Marlon’s behalf and said that he could not accept this award due to the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood. This statement was met with an incredible amount of vitriol and the audience booed her off stage.

Sacheen continued to work as an activist for the Native American community. The Academy finally issued a formal apology to her in June 2022 for the conduct of its members that night.

Joy Harjo - Native American Heritage Month

Poet

Joy Harjo was born in 1951 in Oklahoma to the Muscogee and Cherokee tribes. Joy initially started college as a pre-med student, but quickly changed her major to creative writing, inspired by writers in her community. 


She taught at multiple institutions including the University of Colorado, Arizona State University, and University of New Mexico. Throughout her teaching career, she continued to publish her own poetry, as well as screenplays. In 2019, she was named the U.S. Poet Laureate. She was the first Native American to hold this title and was the second Poet Laureate to serve three times.

Wilma Mankiller - Native American Heritage Month

Tribal Chief

Wilma was born in 1945 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. When she was 11, her family moved to San Francisco as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ relocation policy, which promised assistance to relocate families to urban centers. However, these promises were often not fulfilled. In San Francisco, Wilma grew up alongside and was inspired by a community of activists, including the Red Power movement and the American Indian Movement.

When she moved back to Oklahoma at age 32, she focused on improving access to water and housing for her community. At 40, Wilma was the first woman elected as the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. During her tenure, she focused on social services like improved healthcare infrastructure, education programs, and improved relations between the U.S. Government and Indian tribes. Over ten years, she reduced infant mortality rates and helped the Cherokee population grow. For her work, Wilma received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Further Reading

These women only scratch the surface of Native American women’s significant contributions to their communities and to the world. To celebrate Native American Heritage Month year-round, we recommend checking out this book list from Common Sense Media for more stories featuring Native American protagonists.