Posted on October 28, 2021
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.
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.
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.