Originally Posted: Nov 5, 2020
Last Updated: Nov 5, 2020
November is National Native American Heritage Month, and we’re proud to share with you more stories as part of our Heroes of History series. Please note that anywhere we use the word “Indian” instead of “Native American” or “Indigenous” is due to historical context.
In 1915, the annual Congress of the American Indian Association meeting in Kansas formally approved a plan. The Association’s president—Reverend Sherman Coolidge, an Arapahoe—issued a proclamation on September 28, 1915, declaring the second Saturday of each May as American Indian Day. The proclamation also contained the first formal appeal for recognition of American Indians as US citizens. On the second Saturday in May of 1916, the governor of New York declared the first statewide American Indian Day. Several states began to celebrate the fourth Friday in September. As of 2020, several states have designated Columbus Day as Native American Day—but there isn’t a single day with any recognition as a legal national holiday.
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush approved a joint resolution designating November 1990 as “National American Indian Heritage Month.” Similar proclamations have been issued each year since 1994, and here we are today, celebrating the culture and heritage of the First American people. Read on to learn about five lesser-known Native women and Two-Spirit people.
Biawacheeitche, or “Woman Chief,” was a Two-Spirit born to the Gros Ventre tribe. “Two-Spirit” is a term used by indigenous North Americans to describe a gender-variant (gender queer, gender fluid, gender non-conforming) individual. Unlike other Two-Spirit people, Woman Chief always wore typical women’s clothing. When Biawacheeitche was 10 years old, she was captured—and “adopted”—by the Apsáalooke (Crow) nation. From an early age, she was incredibly interested in what the men in the tribe were doing, wanting to participate too. Edwin Thompson Denig, a fur trader who knew Biawacheeitche, said she could “rival any of the young men in all their amusements and occupations,” and that she was “fearless in everything.” Woman Chief was a skilled hunter and warrior, and she was recognized as the third-highest leader in a band of 160 lodges. As a Two-Spirit, she had “all the style of a man and chief, [she] has her guns, bows, lances, war horses, and even two or three young women as wives...the devices on her robe represent some of her brave acts.”
Wondering how she got her name? As the story goes, an encounter with five “Blackfoot” (presumably Piegan) raiders led to a standoff. Since none of her male Crow warriors answered the challenge to combat, Biawacheeitchee rode out alone. She killed one with her gun, wounded two others with arrows, and chased the remaining two away. After her victorious display of bravery, Woman Chief was granted the full rights and privileges of a Crow warrior. In 1854, she was killed by the Gros Ventre near Fort Union. Her story was recounted in James Beckwourth’s memoirs, in which he refers to her as “Pine Leaf.” Beckwourth was an emancipated slave who fell in love with Woman Chief. After refusing his marriage proposals over and over, she finally conceded that she will marry him only “when the pine leaves turn yellow”—but pine leaves never turn yellow.
Susan La Flesche Picotte
Susan La Flesche was born on the Omaha reservation in northeastern Nebraska in 1865. She was fluent in English, Omaha-Ponca, French, and Otoe. La Flesche was driven to medicine by two memories of her childhood, the first being her father’s warning to his young daughters, “Do you always want to be simply called those Indians or do you want to go to school and be somebody in the world?” The second was the woman she watched die on the reservation because the local white doctor refused to give her medical care.
La Flesche was a bright student and went on to graduate second in her class from the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia (now Hampton University). In her graduation speech, she said, “We who are educated have to be pioneers of Indian civilization…We are only beginning; so do not try to put us down, but help us to climb higher. Give us a chance.” Three years later, she graduated as valedictorian from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania—she was officially a doctor.
Upon returning to the reservation, La Flesche opened the doors to her new office as the tribe’s physician. Many of the tribespeople were sick with tuberculosis or cholera, but La Flesche healed and comforted them the best she could. Since so many patients were adamant that only Dr. Susan treat them, her white counterpart suddenly quit—she became the only physician on the 1,350-sq. mi. reservation. Because there was no hospital, La Flesche made house calls—walking at first, then on horseback, and later in a buggy—across the reservation. Despite her commitment and sacrifice, she would often encounter tribesmen who rejected her diagnosis and questioned modern medicine altogether.
Nevertheless, La Flesche soldiered on. She was able to open a private practice in Bancroft, Nebraska; and eventually, in September 1915—right before she died—La Flesche was able to build a reservation hospital in the town of Walthill, Nebraska. It was the first-ever modern hospital in Thurston County. Unfortunately, it closed in 1940. But there’s hope for the Omaha tribe yet; new clinics have since opened, and new attention on Natives’ public health may lead to increased services and resources for the Omaha people.
Maria Tallchief was the first ever Native American ballerina. She was born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief on January 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma, to an Osage tribe member. Tallchief eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where she studied ballet. In the 1940s, she danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her ballerina name was Maria Tallchief, combining her Native name to be more palatable to English Americans. In 1947, she became the first prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet—and held the title for 13 years. That same year, she became the first American (and Native American!) to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet.
Tallchief performed in such productions as Orpheus, Scotch Symphony, and The Nutcracker. She earned positive reviews from critics for her strength and technical precision. In 1996, Tallchief became one of only five artists to receive the Kennedy Center Honors for artistic contributions to the United States and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame that same year. Three years later, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists and arts patrons in the country.
The legendary ballerina died in 2013 at the age of 88. Following her death, her daughter, Elise Paschen, said, "My mother was a ballet legend who was proud of her Osage heritage. Her dynamic presence lit up the room. I will miss her passion, commitment to her art, and devotion to her family. She raised the bar high and strove for excellence in everything she did." Tallchief’s contributions to the performing arts should never be forgotten.
Osh-Tisch, whose name translates to “Finds Them and Kills Them” in Crow, was a “baté,” the Crow word for Two-Spirit. Osh-Tisch dressed as a woman and did traditional women’s work and fought in battles of Rosebud and Little Big Horn. During the battle of Rosebud, in which the Crow fought in a coalition led by the US Army against the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes, a Crow warrior was wounded and fell from his mount. The Lakota charged forward to further attack, and Osh-Tisch jumped off her horse, stood over him, and started shooting at the approaching Lakota “as rapidly as she could load her gun.” Another Crow woman, The Other Magpie, started to scream to create a diversion even though she only had only a coup stick. She rode toward the Lakota, alternating between waving her stick wildly, spitting at them, and yelling, “My spit is my arrows!” As the Lakota tried to keep up, she hit one with her coup stick; Osh-Tisch’s bullet followed soon after. This earned Osh-Tisch her “Finds Them and Kills Them” name.
Even after her gallant acts of war, tribes were still confined to reservations. There, Osh-Tisch was harassed and ridiculed by missionaries. They forced her to cut her hair and dress in men’s clothes. And yet, tribal leaders defended her. Even in the Victorian era, Native people embraced Two-Spirit people for who they were and all they accomplished.
Wilma Mankiller, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, was born in 1945 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. When she was just 11 years old, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Relocation Program moved her family to San Francisco, California. A few years after the move, she became involved in San Francisco’s Indian Center. As a teen, Mankiller assisted and supported the early Black Panther Party and joined in Native American students’ occupation and attempted reclamation of Alcatraz Island.
In 1977, Mankiller returned to Oklahoma and spearheaded several community development projects, and in 1983, she became the Deputy Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Two years later, Mankiller became the first female Principal Chief of the modern Cherokee Nation—the second-largest tribe in the United States. She served for 10 years, and under her leadership, tribal enrollment tripled, employment doubled, educational achievement went up, and infant mortality went down. Three years after Mankiller left public office in 1995, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today, the Wilma Mankiller Foundation works with Indigenous communities to carry on her legacy.
Have you ever heard of these heroes? It’s time we share their stories! Native Americans have a rich history as the First Americans, and we encourage everyone to learn more about them and their culture. Happy Native American Heritage Month!
- Rejected Princesses: Osh-Tisch
- Smithsonian Magazine: The Incredible Legacy of Susan La Flesche, the First Native American to Earn a Medical Degree
- Maria Tallchief: Biography
- Biawacheeitche or Woman Chief
- NHHM: Wilma Mankiller
- NCAI: Two-Spirit People: Sex, Gender & Sexuality in Historic and Contemporary Native America (PDF)
- Journal of the Indian Wars, Vol. 1, No. 3: The Indian Wars' Civil War
- National Native American Heritage Month