Photo by Sarah Sunshine Manning
Graduates of Tiospa Zina Tribal School, class of 2015.

Manning: Indigenous Women’s History Empowers Native American Youth

Sarah Sunshine Manning

While teaching a high school lesson on indigenous women’s history, the rare and sweet occasion of classroom fireworks occurred, as the beautiful faces of Native youth lit up with inspiration.

Partly through lecture, and in large part through individual research, students studied a collection of indigenous women who shaped Indian Country with courageous acts of leadership and determination.

Personal discoveries were made, electric discoveries, as young men and women alike came alive with a deeper recognition that they come from incredibly powerful people, and in this particular lesson, they learned that they descend from extremely powerful indigenous women.

Among many other figures, students researched Lozen [Chiricahua Apache] and Sarah Winnemucca [Northern Paiute], powerful leaders who, as women, never questioned their ability to lead in the nineteenth century when encroachment on their lands threatened the existence of their nations.

Lozen, a woman warrior, fought alongside men in monumental efforts to protect Chiricahua Apache homelands, taking courageous stands for the life of her people. Sarah Winnemucca was an educator and authored the first autobiography written by a Native American woman, and later went on speaking tours to advocate for the rights of the Northern Paiute people as they faced constant removals and relocations.

In fact, Lozen and Sarah Winnemucca lived during a time when their white American women counterparts had yet to experience voting rights in America. In contrast, indigenous women not only had a voice among their people in the nineteenth century, but they were often leading their nations as warriors, clan mothers, medicine women and keepers of knowledge. 

Indigenous women have been influential and powerful since our earliest creation stories, but this, along with many other truths, has been hidden by colonization, functioning to disempower once mighty tribal nations.

In this particular history lesson on indigenous women, students reconnected to the power of who we all once were, as women and as entire nations.

Through studying the many powerful stories of indigenous women, Native youth can also access an expanded sense of hope and self-worth. The stories of powerful women offer Native girls today an understanding of their own inherent power, and young men an understanding of the value of the women around them. Simply by exposing them to the truth of who we are and always have been, as women, and as indigenous Peoples of this land, Native youth become empowered and they become a critical part of the puzzle of decolonization, bringing much needed balance to themselves and their communities.

Diane Humetewa (courtesy Arizona State University) and Zitkala Sa.

Students also researched and learned about Zitkala Sa [Yankton Dakota], and Susette La Flesche [Omaha], educators, intellectuals and activists who made use of Western education to aid and defend their people during the early reservation era. When life was incredibly depressing and challenging on reservations, Zitkala Sa and Susette La Flesche were seeking and creating solutions, working tirelessly to defend and protect the rights of their people. And they succeeded in doing so, not in spite of the fact that they were indigenous women, but because they were indigenous women. They knew their power. 

Students researched Eloise Cobell [Blackfeet] and Wilma Mankiller [Cherokee], intelligent trailblazers and leaders for all of Indian Country who worked tirelessly to defend the sovereign rights of tribal nations while navigating the murky waters of Indian policy and law. Both women participated in decades of civil rights battles and efforts to defend, protect and exercise tribal sovereignty. Cobell and Mankiller forever changed the landscape of tribal nations today, and again, not in spite of the fact that they were Native women, but because they were women, and they too knew their power.

And while many of the indigenous women leaders of our past knew their power, many youth and women today tragically do not, which is precisely why telling the stories of indigenous women is critical, now more than ever. Disproportionate high school drop out rates, youth suicide, incarcerated Native women or women suffering from addictions, poverty and domestic violence, are all indications of the tragic disempowerment of youth and Native women today.

Since the arrival of the first colonial expeditions, indigenous women have been assaulted physically and spiritually by the colonial mindset, as colonizers viewed the indigenous woman as beneath men, often as sexual objects unworthy of basic human rights.

The mere fact that the word “squaw” has become such a pervasive and grotesquely inaccurate American synonym for “Native woman” is evidence of this. “Squaw” is a European perversion of an Algonquian word that means female genitalia. In many parts of the U.S., the word “squaw” remains an unchallenged pejorative of the local vernacular. 

What history reveals to us is that indigenous women have been devalued and diminished tremendously by way of colonization. What history also reveals is that what befalls women, ultimately befalls entire nations. And conversely, as indigenous women become valued appropriately, women become stronger and the children they raise become stronger, and then families become stronger. And eventually, entire nations become stronger too. Reconnecting to the strength of indigenous women through historical lessons moves us all one step closer to achieving the much-needed balance in tribal communities today, where masculine and feminine energies operate in synergy.

During that rare moment of classroom fireworks, that much-needed balance of masculine and female energy occupied the space of Native education. Students further learned about many of the indigenous women leaders and trailblazers who still walk this Earth with us today. In today’s society, Native women still assert themselves and their inherent power, claiming their rightful place as human beings who are worthy of life, happiness and fulfillment. They stand firmly for the Earth and for their nations, just as we always have.  

Students researched and learned about contemporary leaders, such as the prolific Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabe environmentalist, author and former U.S. Vice Presidential candidate; Ashley Callingbull-Burnham, unapologetic Cree activist, model and reigning Mrs. Universe, who shocked the world when immediately after being crowned, dove right into speaking about issues that plague First Nations people; Diane Humetewa, Hopi judge and the first Native American woman to be appointed to a federal district court position; and of course, as a class we had to recognize Shoni Schimmel, Umatilla WNBA basketball player who not only inspires on the basketball court, but takes advantage of her platform to bring awareness to Native issues.

Story by story, students lit up more and more with pride. The entire room lit up.

By the end of lesson, I too was beaming. As I looked upon my students, I proclaimed, “You see, Native women were always powerful,” as if, in their bones, my students hadn’t already known.  Perhaps they just needed the reminder, and perhaps we all do. I could hardly contain myself after seeing that a few of the young women were visibly awestruck, making giggly exclamations of happiness and pride. These are the moments that many Native educators live for.  

As an educator, it isn’t every day that we have the privilege of experiencing such powerful and moving lessons. So when those moments of synergy and inspiration do present themselves, we savor that time and space, and share the occasion with others. So I share, in excitement and happiness with you all, the lesson that brought happiness and excitement to my students: indigenous women are powerful, and we always have been. This understanding, undeniably manages to make Native youth feel powerful too. 

As they walk out into the world, may our youth forever be imprinted with the many stories of indigenous strength, stories of indigenous women’s strength, and further be guided by the many possibilities that lie before them, as they too are just as powerful.

Sarah Sunshine Manning

Sarah Sunshine Manning [Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree] is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.

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