5 Native American Women U.S. History Doesn’t Tell You About

Posted on October 28, 2021

by Rebecca S

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.

Cover of American Indian Stories

American Indian Stories

Cover of American Indian Stories

American Indian Stories

Cover of Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-̈Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist

Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-̈Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist

Cover of Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-̈Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist

Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-̈Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist

Cover of Learning to Write

Learning to Write “Indian”: The Boarding-school Experience and American Indian

Cover of Learning to Write

Learning to Write “Indian”: The Boarding-school Experience and American Indian

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.

Cover of A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America's First Indian Doctor

A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America's First Indian Doctor

Cover of A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America's First Indian Doctor

A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America's First Indian Doctor

Cover of Women Who Dared: 52 Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers, and Rebels

Women Who Dared: 52 Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers, and Rebels

Cover of Women Who Dared: 52 Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers, and Rebels

Women Who Dared: 52 Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers, and Rebels

Cover of Native American Doctor: The Story of Susan LaFlesche Picotte

Native American Doctor: The Story of Susan LaFlesche Picotte

Cover of Native American Doctor: The Story of Susan LaFlesche Picotte

Native American Doctor: The Story of Susan LaFlesche Picotte

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.

Cover of She Persisted: Maria Tallchief

She Persisted: Maria Tallchief

Cover of She Persisted: Maria Tallchief

She Persisted: Maria Tallchief

Cover of Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina

Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina

Cover of Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina

Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina