Native American Women Part 1: History


I grew up in Oklahoma, which—according to the 2010 U.S. census—has the fourth largest Native American population in the United States. For the latter portion of my childhood and teenaged years, the Chief of the Cherokee Nation was Chief Chad Smith. I read articles about tribal issues and legislation in the Tulsa World newspaper, so his name and the broader tribal and political issues were familiar to me.

Native-American-Indians-2804350However, for the first nine years of my life, the Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation was a woman by the name of Wilma Mankiller. Wilma Mankiller was the first woman Principle Chief of the Cherokee nation. She was not, however the first woman chief of an American Indian tribe. There were a number of those: Queen Alliquippa of the Seneca Indians, Alice Brown Davis of the Seminole, and Virginia Klinekole of the Mescalero Apache…to name a few.

Native American history is an important part of Oklahoman history, but it is often overlooked at large. There are a few famous chiefs that you might know about, and most people at least know the name Will Rogers, who was a Cherokee from Oklahoma, but the history of Native Americans—and Native American women—is not always given a great deal of time and detail in education.

Perhaps the two most famous Native American women—the two most likely to be studied by schoolchildren—are Pocahontas and Sacajawea. Pocahontas, who was Algonquian, is famous for her interactions with the early English settlers, including her eventual integration into English life. Sacajawea, who was Shoshone, is famous for accompanying Lewis and Clark on their expedition as occasional interpreter and guide.

Pocahontas gets a less-than-accurate Disney movie and a guessed likeness of Sacajawea is to be found on the dollar coin. Perhaps they each get a section in middle school history books. But the history of Native American women and their contributions to their peoples and this country did not end in their respective time periods. There is much more to explore here that is so rarely explored.

A brief investigation turns up many women in Native American history who have fascinating stories, and about whom we know very little. Take Susan La Flesche Picotte, who was born in 1865 and became “the first American Indian woman in the United States to receive a medical degree.” She was raised on Omaha Reservation, and it was her desire to see better medical care on the reservation which spurred her on—this, in an age when being a female doctor alone was an oddity, and Native Americans endured very negative treatment overall.

Dahteste was a Mescalero (sometimes recorded as Chiricahua) Apache woman who took part in raiding parties with her husband, who was associated with the famous Geronimo, and is credited with helping to negotiate his surrender.

It is pulling teeth to find out more about women like Dahteste, because records and information are so sparse. This is true, in fact, of very large swaths of Native American history and even somewhat of the present. So, what about Native American women today?