March is Women’s History Month and, to honor the occasion, we’d like to create a space for all the women history forgot. For the women who deserve a place in our textbooks. For the women whose voices should echo. This piece — just one in a series — is for them.
Anyone who follows the No DAPL movement realizes Native women make history. Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer — a 13-year-old member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe — wrote the petition that began the movement and provided its slogan: “Mni wiconi” (Water is Life). Native women of all ages continue to keep the movement going.
Native women have always served as leaders, healers, artists, and anything else they wanted to be — but you wouldn’t know it from reading most history textbooks. Pocahontas and Sacajawea are usually there, though their lives are generally boiled down to the part they played in saving white men. Sometimes Northern Paiute activist Sarah Winnemuca Hopkins or Wilma Mankiller (former chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) will make it in. A friend in California reports that her kindergartener even learned about Tongva-Gabrieliño revolutionary Toypurina at school this year.
While it would be impossible to list all the Native women who have made history, we want to provide a sampling — to make up for what history classes lack.
Zitkala-sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) (Yankton Sioux) was a writer and activist who used her work to promote respect for Native religion and culture, as well as civil rights. She worked with Winnebago artist Angel DeCora early in her writing career, and her books and stories brought attention to Native issues. An accomplished musician, she was also the first Native person to compose an opera, Sun Dance Opera.
Buffalo Calf Road Woman (Northern Cheyenne) saved her brother, Chief Comes in Sight, at the Battle of Rosebud, rallying the Cheyenne to defeat Gen. George Crook and his troops. In 2005, after a 100-year silence on the battle, Cheyenne storytellers revealed that she also struck the blow that knocked Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer off his horse just before his death at the Battle of Little Bighorn (aka “Custer’s Last Stand”) — the most successful battle waged by Native warriors against U.S. troops in the West.
Lyda Conley (Wyandot) was one of the first female Native attorneys. Along with her sisters Sarah, Helena, and Ida, she worked to protect and preserve the Huron Cemetery in Kansas City. She and her sisters set up a shack on the grounds of the cemetery, armed with muskets, to prevent the sale of the land.
Eventually, Lyda appeared before the Supreme Court as plaintiff-attorney in the first case to argue that Native burial grounds are entitled to federal protection. Her case was dismissed; but nevertheless, she persisted. In 1916, the cemetery was designated a federal park, and in the 1990s, the cemetery (where Lyda is buried) was renamed the Wyandot National Burial Ground and designated a National Historic Landmark.
In 1945, Elizabeth (Wanamaker) Peratrovich (Tlingit) was instrumental in gaining passage of America’s first anti-discrimination law. Her husband Roy (also Tlingit) was mayor of their small Alaskan town for several years, but they moved to Juneau for greater opportunities for their children. There, they encountered “No Natives Allowed” signs, along with other discrimination. They worked for passage of the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act until it finally came before the Senate. Elizabeth gave the final testimony at the hearing. Sen. Allan Shattuck had earlier asked, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites, with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?”
Elizabeth responded, “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them, of our Bill of Rights.” In 1988, Alaska named February 16th, the day the law passed, as “Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.”
If you studied the Great Depression in history class, you probably saw Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph, Migrant Mother, which depicts a dust-covered woman gazing to the side of the frame, with her two children cowering beside her. The mother is Florence Owen Thompson, a Cherokee woman who had come to California from Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) several years before the Depression. There, she was widowed and lived as an itinerant farmhand while raising her children.
Though the photograph became iconic and furthered Lange’s career, Thompson preferred privacy and continued to work hard until her death in 1983. Her gravestone reads, “Migrant Mother: A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”
Susan La Flesche Picotte (Omaha) was the first Native person to graduate from medical school, which she did in 1889 at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She returned to her tribe in Nebraska and served them as a physician, eventually soliciting enough donations to open the first modern hospital in her county.
Mary Golda Ross (Cherokee) was the first Native engineer. Born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1908, she taught math and science until 1942, when she was hired as a mathematician and later trained as an engineer by Lockheed Corporation. She was the only Native and only woman among the forty engineers of the secret Lockheed Skunk Works think-tank, which was instrumental in space travel. She was also one of the authors of the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III about travel to Mars and Venus.
Maria Tallchief (Osage) was America’s first prima ballerina. Born on Osage land in 1925, she moved to New York at 17, where she became the first star of the New York City Ballet, co-founded in 1946 by the legendary George Balanchine, who she eventually married. She is the most prominent of the group of ballerinas sometimes called the Five Moons, after a statue commemorating Oklahoma’s five American Indian prima ballerinas. The others are Maria’s sister Marjorie Tallchief (Osage), Yvonne Chouteau (Shawnee), Moscelyne Larkin (Shawnee-Peoria), and Rosella Hightower (Choctaw).