This article was originally published at Indianz.com
For the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake, the most recent Women’s History Month is not just an opportunity to offer vacuous congratulatory statements or flowery symbolic gestures. It is a moment to reflect on our tribe’s heritage, our enduring challenges and the powerful women who have been the bedrock of our community from day one. As a matriarchal tribe, we are proud to recognize the contributions of women to our renewed strength this month and every other month in the calendar. Through women-led economic development initiatives, we’ve been able to act as both a support system for our most disadvantaged members and as a network to improve the lives of our close neighbors as well. Indeed, the tradition of community empowerment driven by women is not only ingrained in the Pomo tribe, it is also deeply embedded in Native American culture beyond our borders. That’s why we would like to bring attention to lesser known Native American women who have demonstrated courage and leadership in the face of adversity across many different fields. Here are five Native American women who broke boundaries to become extraordinary leaders:
Bíawacheeitchish: Chief (? – 1854)
Bíawacheeitchish, meaning “Woman Chief,” was born to the Gros Ventre people, but was captured and adopted by a Crow tribe at age 10. Her father, a warrior who had lost his sons, encouraged her talent for traditionally male activities, like riding and hunting. She gained recognition as a warrior during a raid, defending the Crows from a Blackfoot war party. Soon she was leading her own group of fighters and earned acceptance as the representative of her lodge, which eventually rose to 3rd of 160 lodges in the Council of Chiefs. She is remembered as a rare female leader among the patriarchal Crow tribe, and historians believe that she may be the woman known as “Pine Leaf” in James Beckwourth’s writings.
Lozen: Warrior (1840 – 1889)
The younger sister of Victorio, leader of the Warm Springs Apache, Lozen gained notoriety when she fought alongside her brother in an escape from the San Carlos Reservation in 1877. Although unmarried female warriors were unusual among the Apache people, she earned deep respect for her skills and courage, especially what was considered a mystic ability to detect enemies. Victorio’s group was ambushed and destroyed just when Lozen had left to aid a new mother, and many historians believe that had she been there, she might have saved them. Lozen rejoined the fight alongside Geronimo, whom she later represented in the diplomatic negotiation for his surrender. Although her people ultimately could not surmount the opposing armies, Lozen’s remarkable talent and audacity prolonged their freedom and survival. A statue of Sarah Winnemucca, who fought for the rights of Native people in the 1800s, represents the state of Nevada at the U.S. Capitol. Photo: TCDavis
Sarah Winnemucca: Advocate and Writer (c. 1844 – 1891)
The first Native American woman to publish a book, Sarah was born to Northern Paiute chief Winnemucca. She learned English and studied European-American culture as a child when she and her siblings lived briefly with a European family, while their parents herded cattle. Later, the family returned to their native land to defend it against colonization, but the tribe lost the war and was forced onto Malheur Reservation. Sarah acted as interpreter and later became a translator for the United States Army. When the remaining Winnemucca people were moved to Yakama Reservation, Sarah voluntarily accompanied them as an official translator. After observing the deplorable conditions there, in 1883, she began a series of lectures across the U.S. to raise awareness of the injustice suffered by Native Americans. That same year, she published her lecture materials as a book, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Their Claims. It was a critical step toward recognition of the plight of the Native American people and advocacy on their behalf.
Susan LaFlesche Picotte: Doctor (1865 – 1915)
Born on the Omaha Reservation to biracial parents, Susan Picotte became the first Native American to earn a medical degree in the United States. She excelled in school, and although women were expected to assume a traditional role in the home, Susan applied to medical school instead. As a child, she witnessed a Native American woman die after a doctor refused to treat her, and Susan was determined to bring quality health care to the reservation. She graduated as valedictorian from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and became the government physician at the Omaha Agency Indian School, caring for the 1,300 residents of the reservation. After leaving that position, she continued to practice medicine privately and advocate for temperance, public health reforms, and land rights for Native Americans.
Maria Tallchief: Performer (1925 – 2013)
Elizabeth Marie “Betty” Tallchief was born on the Osage Reservation in Oklahoma to an Osage father and a Scottish-Irish mother who had always dreamed of being a dancer. Maria started dancing at age three and excelled when her family moved to Los Angeles to pursue show business work in 1933. After high school, Maria joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in New York City. Under the training of famed choreographer George Balanchine, she became a featured soloist, and when Balanchine left the company, Maria followed him to the New York City Ballet. There she soared, becoming America’s first prima ballerina and the first Native American to bear that title. Later, Maria danced with the American Ballet Theatre and Hamburg Ballet in Germany and also appeared on television and in films. She retired from performing and moved to Chicago, where she directed the Lyric Opera and launched its ballet school. The Osage Nation gave her the title Princess Wa-Xthe-Thomba, meaning “Woman of Two Standards,” and the Kennedy Center honored her with a lifetime achievement award. These five women reflect the commitment to justice, progress, unity and improving quality of life that has been the hallmark of female-driven Native American advancement for years. The Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake people honor our Native American sisters to capture their legacy and build upon the path they have forged. These women serve as an inspiration to our people in every corner of the nation, offering proof that Native American culture can remain true to its roots as we navigate – and succeed – in an increasingly complex and diverse world.