In Praise of the Mighty Native Woman

Ruth Hopkins

Native women, with their indomitable spirits and ability to create miracles through sheer force of will, are absolutely the reason why the indigenous people of the Western hemisphere managed to survive genocide, against all odds. It is we who birth and nourish all Red Nations.

March is Women’s History Month. While everyone is singing the praises of Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart, or Eleanor Roosevelt (and rightfully so), I lament over the lack of information available to the public about remarkable Native women. Google it. You’ll be hard pressed to find a list of one hundred famous Native women. In reality, there are scores more worthy of mention, throughout history and living today.

Native women are so humble. We don’t make a habit of acknowledging our accomplishments, and patriarchy encourages us to remain silent. Yet it’s crucial that we lift up Native women. Girls need to see their grown counterparts shine. They need positive role models to venerate; supreme examples of indigenous womanhood to aspire to.

Native women like Lozen (1840-1890) are omitted from textbooks. A Chiricahua Apache, she was a warrior and a holy woman. Lozen was called a shield to her people. It was said that she had the gift of prophecy and could determine the location of the enemy, sight unseen. Victorio, an Apache chief, was her brother. He called her his “right hand.” Not only was she brave, she was smart. Her ability to strategize militarily rivaled that of her brother. She fought beside Geronimo too, right up until the end. After he surrendered, Lozen became a prisoner of war. She was shipped to a prison camp in Alabama and died there with her warrior brethren, far from home. Lozen is one of my personal heroes.

The life of Zitkala-Ša (Red Bird, 1876–1938) has had a profound influence on me. She was Dakota and grew up on a reservation in South Dakota, like me. She was taken away by missionaries to be assimilated. In school, they cut her hair and forced her to give up her traditions. Later in life, she would write about how traumatic this experience was. Nonetheless, she would not be defeated. Red Bird excelled academically. While attending Earlham College, she began translating Native legends into Latin, and then English. She played the violin in Paris and wrote for Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly. She accepted a position at Carlisle Indian Boarding School. The school’s founder, Richard Henry Pratt, a notorious assimilationist, is infamous for saying, “kill the Indian, save the man.” Zitkala-Sa did not agree with his barbaric practices and was summarily dismissed after writing a piece speaking out against assimilation and Native boarding schools.

Red Bird, also called Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, promoted pan-Indianism and her lobbying eventually led to the passage of Indian citizenship. A political piece she wrote about the swindling of Natives in Oklahoma spurred on the adoption of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1924. She founded the National Council of American Indians. She was a suffragette too. Red Bird even composed the first American Indian opera, The Sun Dance. She would not be silenced. This little Dakota girl from the rez changed the course of Native history. I can only imagine what Red Bird would have tweeted if she had a Twitter account.

Toypurina (Tongva) was a medicine woman and headed a rebellion against the Spanish in California in 1785. Mary Crawler (Lakota), Minnie Hollow Wood (Lakota), and Buffalo Calf Road Woman (Cheyenne), all fought at the Battle of Little Big Horn. My Dakota namesake Cankudutawin (Red Road Woman) was there and bore witness. Mary Brave Bird (Lakota) was one of a handful of women at Wounded Knee II. Sisters Carrie and Mary Dann (Shoshone) fought for Native land rights. Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee) was the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Because of Elouise Cobell (Blackfoot), thousands of Natives received part of a of $3.4 billion settlement as compensation for decades of trust land mismanagement by the government.

There are scores of Native women doing amazing work today. Winona LaDuke, Debra White Plume, Suzan Harjo, Charlene Teters, and Deborah Parker are showing us how to save Mother Earth, and ourselves. Right now there are legions of Native women working quietly – pretty noses pressed to the grindstone – as doctors, lawyers, judges, writers, teachers, engineers, college presidents, managers, students, activists, and in scores of other professions. We hold the world together, sometimes with a baby on one hip. We are your grandmothers, mothers, sisters, partners, and yes, your crazy aunties. And we do it without asking for so much as a thank you. We do it out of pure love.

We’re out here making it look good too – in fine turquoise and killer beadwork – Native queens in crowns of sage. We are legendary. Spirits, stars and gods fall in love with us. And yes, we woke up like this. All of us.

As the Cheyenne proverb goes, “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.”

Welp, that will never happen. Mark my words. We. Won’t. Let. It. To hell with the protestant work ethic: our grandmothers taught us how to grind.

Now go tell your daughters about our strong, brilliant women. Name names. Sing your Native sista’s praises. Together we are unstoppable. 

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Ohoyo Chahta's picture
Let's add to the list so all our sisters and daughter and grand-daughters can see the magnitude of this! I will start by adding authors Linda Hogan, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Paula Gunn Allen.
Ohoyo Chahta