Little feels better than bundling up and heading to work surrounded by the subtle changes that crisp mornings bring to the desert. A new season arrived and Thanksgiving is upon us. Plowing through gravy trains and elbowing our way to the pumpkin pie, we have that big dinner on our minds. We join friends and family in expressing one thing we’re thankful for. We recall childhood teachings about the “great feast” and “peace treaty” between the native residents and new world settlers. November offers more than a change in weather and romanticized history lessons. In 1990 President George Bush declared November Native American Heritage month. In recognition and with gratitude, we take a closer look at six groundbreaking Native American women.

Six Groundbreaking Native American Women

Pocahontas (1596) was more than a Disney princess. She was the favorite daughter of the most influential Native American in the Virginia area. Her father assigned her the role of peacekeeper between their tribe, the Powhatans, and the English settlers. She was kidnapped before she could embrace these duties and wasn’t seen for over a year. When Pocahontas resurfaced, it was to announce her conversion to Christianity and a desire to marry a tobacco grower, John Rolfe. After their marriage and journey to England, she continued to promote interests of her colony back home to investors and was celebrated among London society. Before she could make the trip home to her people in Virginia, she died in Gravesend.

Nancy Ward (1738), Nanye-hi, was born to the Wolf Clan of the Cherokee people in what is now eastern Tennessee. She was a thick-skinned and courageous woman who fought alongside men during battles. It was rumored she’d chew on her husband’s lead bullets to make them more pointed and lethal! Nanye-hi’s husband was killed during a battle with settlers. Filled with rage she gathered a group of warriors and set about a charge that ultimately led to victory. As a result, she was proclaimed the Beloved Woman. This role allowed her to sit on tribal councils, make decisions and have control over prisoners. Nanye-hi also commanded a prominence in maintaining peace. On more than one occasion she’d hear of secret attacks and would send word to warn the opposing side, whether settler or native. Because of her title as Beloved Woman it was common for her to speak directly to chiefs and heads of settler colonies to ensure continued harmony. Up until her death in 1822 she continued to care for others and hosted travelers and orphans.

Sacajawea (1786) was a member of the Shoshone tribe, otherwise known as the Snake People. She was an influential member of the Lewis and Clark expedition as an interpreter who helped the party with trade. All of the diaries kept by members of the expedition indicate that Sacajawea maintained the most cheerful and positive attitude during the whole journey, which couldn’t have been easy. The tales of her death vary but it’s safe to say Lewis and Clark wouldn’t have had as successful a journey without the help of this courageous and intelligent woman.

Maria Tallchief (1925) followed her impossible dream. Born to the Osage Indian Tribe in Oklahoma, she was America’s first major prima ballerina. Tallchief moved to New York City to pursue her dream by joining the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. By age 17 she was a member. She was a gifted dancer and became a featured soloist. In 1999 she won the National Medal of Arts award. Tallchief is featured along with four other Native American Dancers (Yvonne Chouteau, Marjorie Tallchief, Rosella Hightower and Moscelyne Larkin) in a celebrated statue in Tulsa. The Osage tribe gave Tallchief the title of Wa-Xthe-Thoma, which means, “Woman of Two Worlds”. By working hard and setting the goal high, Tallchief continues to inspire fellow Native Americans, dancers, artists and women alike.

Wilma Mankiller (1945) was the first elected female Cherokee Chief. She held her position from 1985-1995 when she declined re-election for health reasons. During her term, she committed herself to the 300,000 people of her nation. Mankiller expanded programs such as healthcare and education and increased the number of Native Americans in government positions. She raised employment, built housing and health care facilities and founded programs for children. Mankiller signed an agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to allow the surrender of millions of dollars to her tribe. In 1986 she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom and after stepping down from office she continued support for tribal and feminist rights. Mankiller passed away in 2010 but the gains she made for the Cherokee people and women all over the world will be forever remembered.

Diane Humetewa (1964) is the first Native American Woman to be appointed Federal Judge and one of only four Native Americans to ever hold such a position. The vote for her appointment was unanimous as is Arizona’s support and pride. With an impressive legal background, Humetewa also brings much needed representation for Native Americans to the bench. Humetewa is a member of the Hopi Nation and worked in the U.S. Senate in Arizona under George Bush. She was also a professor at ASU.

This season, take the time to give thanks while also looking past simplified history lessons to give recognition where it’s due. If you’re interested in learning more about these six groundbreaking Native American women or other history-making Native Americans, stop by to see us. You will find many titles about under-represented people among our nonfiction sections. Bookmans is your store to explore and we are happy to make recommendations. If you’re looking for something specific, give us a call and we’ll check the shelves for you.