Native Americans were the original stewards of our land, and each individual that called this place home is deserving of our acknowledgement and gratitude. While this list is by no means exhaustive, the Native Americans highlighted here advocated for justice and equity for Native communities, calling attention to the genocide and forced removal of Indigneous people from their homelands. Here are their stories.
Wilma Pearl Mankiller
The first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Pearl Mankiller invested her life in fighting for the rights of American Indians. Born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, her last name “Mankiller” denotes Cherokee military rank, like captain or major. During her tenure as chief, the Cherokee population doubled and, upon retirement, the entire operating budget for the sovereign nation was $150 million. As a founder of the Cherokee Community Development Department, she collaborated with native communities in Oklahoma to bring much-needed infrastructure, like electricity and clean water, to families.
Sandra Lovelace Nicholas
Now a Senator in Canada, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas has played a huge part in securing rights for Aboriginal women throughout Canada. She fought against discriminatory practices within the Indian Act, which took away rights when an Aboriginal woman married a non-Aboriginal. Nicholas brought a case before the UN Human Rights Commission, lobbying for change.
An outstanding ballerina, Maria Tallchief was raised in Osage Nation and moved to New York City at the age of 17 to pursue ballet. In 1942, her big break came and she stepped in as an understudy in a Russian Ballet. After receiving rave reviews, many dance companies tried to persuade her to change her last name to avoid discrimination. Tallchief refused and went on to become the first American to dance in the Paris Ballet.
An American athlete and Olympic gold medalist, Jim Thorpe was a dynamic athlete who won the decathlon and the pentathlon in 1912. Thorpe persevered despite overt racism in which Olympic commissions stripped him of his medals because of his Sac and Fox Nation heritage. Thorpe went on to play professional baseball and football, becoming President of the Bulldogs, which was one of 14 teams in the American Professional Football Association (later the NFL).
As the first Native American poet laureate in the United States, Joy Harjo uses poetry to dismantle commonly held stereotypes about the Muscogee nation. Harjo created more representation for Native communities that were contrary to typical depictions in Wild West films or as impoverished groups on the fringes of society. From Harjo in an interview with Time Magazine, “A lot of images are based on fairy tales of Wild West shows. We are human beings, not just people who have been created for people’s fantasy worlds. There’s not just one Native American.”
Native American history is our shared history. These individuals paved the way for other Native Americans in government, athletics, and literature, and remind us to show gratitude to our country’s original inhabitants by learning about and celebrating them.