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20 Native Women to Know

By YWCA Minneapolis
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November is Native American Heritage Month. To celebrate, we are uplifting the wisdom and work of Native American women, stewards and leaders from our earliest history to now. Read on to learn about 20 women whose leadership, innovation and creativity have made and continue to make vast contributions to our history.

We use the term “women” in this blog and also acknowledge and validate the spectrum of gender identification and the breadth of language used by and among women/womyn/womxn/femmes.

Ryneldi Becenti

Ryneldi Becenti was the first Native American to play in the WNBA. Before playing for the Phoenix Mercury in 1997, she had successful seasons in Sweden, Greece and Turkey. She was a two-time National Junior College Athletic Association All-American and was the country’s top junior college point guard during the 1990-1991 season. In 1996, she became the first and only woman to be inducted into the Native American Hall of Fame. In 2013, she was the first women’s basketball player to have her jersey (No. 21) retired by Arizona State University.

Lyda Conley

Lyda Conley was a Wyandot-American lawyer of Native American and European descent, the first woman admitted to the Kansas Bar Association. She was notable for her campaign to prevent the sale and development of the Huron Cemetery in Kansas City, now known as the Wyandot National Burying Ground. She challenged the government in court, and in 1909 she was the first Native American woman admitted to argue a case before the Supreme Court of the United States. Her case appears to be the first in which “a plaintiff argued that the burying grounds of Native Americans were entitled to federal protection.”

Jordan Marie Daniel

Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel is the founder of Rising Hearts Coalition — an Indigenous-led grassroots group that works to uplift and defend Indigenous rights around the country. She has also worked as the Indian affairs liaison to Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. Jordan has contributed significantly to language revitalization, social and economic development, and suicide prevention for over 180 tribes across Indian country.

Sharice Davids

Sharice Davids currently serves as Kansas’ Third Congressional District in Congress. In 2018, Sharice Davids became one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress, along with Deb Haaland of New Mexico. The former mixed martial arts fighter is also the first openly LGBTQ member of Congress from Kansas. Sharice has worked toward economic and community development on Native American reservations, creating and implementing programs and growth initiatives. She also served under President Barack Obama in the White House Fellowship program.

Peggy Flanagan

Peggy Flanagan is a mom, activist and the 50th lieutenant governor of the State of Minnesota. Her career has consistently centered advocacy for children, families and community, from her time on the Minneapolis Board of Education to training leaders and community organizing at Wellstone Action to leading the Children’s Defense Fund in Minnesota as executive director. Before elected as lieutenant governor, she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. Lieutenant Governor Flanagan became the first Native American woman elected to statewide office in Minnesota as well as the second Native American woman, after Denise Juneau, elected to statewide office in the United States.

Ravyn Gibbs

Ravyn Gibbs is an Anishinaabe woman, social worker and advocate from Duluth. She works at the intersections of Indigenous sovereignty, racial justice, gender equity and public health. Her educational background is in social work and public health, and she has worked with the American Indian Cancer Foundation, the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs as a Udall Foundation Native American Congressional Fellow. She is also an avid participant in music, arts and the outdoors in Minnesota and beyond. Ravyn currently serves as the Native American outreach director for United States Senator Tina Smith.

Nicolle Gonzales

Navajo nurse and midwife Nicolle Gonzales founded the first Native American-led birth organization, The Changing Women Initiative, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which supports Native American mothers to have access to cultural and health services during pregnancy and birth. Its mission is to renew cultural birth knowledge, promote reproductive wellness, healing through holistic approaches and to strengthen women’s bonds to family and community. Gonzales works to decolonize Indigenous women’s birth experiences and help lower the high rates of Indigenous women birth mortality in the United States. The organization is the only one of its kind so far in the United States.

Deb Haaland

Congresswoman Haaland is a 35th generation New Mexican who is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna and also has Jemez Pueblo heritage. After running for New Mexico lieutenant governor in 2014, Haaland became the first Native American woman to be elected to lead a state party. It was during this time that she went to Standing Rock to support the tribe when they decided to fight the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through their treaty lands. In the House of Representatives, she holds several leadership roles and is vice-chair of the Committee on Natural Resources, chair of Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. She continues to champion Native causes, fighting for the environment and sacred sites.

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo, Muscogee Creek, has been tapped by the Library of Congress to serve a second term as U.S. poet laureate. She said the appointment is an honor, “especially during these times of earth transformation and cultural change.” During the coronavirus pandemic, Harjo’s work has been featured in The Poetry of Home, a new video series from The Washington Post and the Library of Congress featuring four U.S. poet laureates on the theme of “home” at a time when so many people are sheltering in place. Harjo, 68, was first appointed in 2019, becoming the first Native American to hold the position. She will now serve as the nation’s 23rd poet laureate consultant in poetry for 2020-2021.

Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke is a Native American writer, economist, environmentalist, public speaker and industrial hemp grower. She was born on August 18, 1959 in Los Angeles, California to a Jewish mother from the Bronx and a Native father from Ojibwe White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. LaDuke helped found Indigenous Women’s Network, a nonprofit that centers on giving a platform to Indigenous women of the Western Hemisphere and focuses on helping them have sovereignty over themselves and their environment. She also worked with Women of All Red Nations to expose the forced sterilization of Native American Women. In 1996 and 2000, LaDuke ran as a vice president on the Green Party ticket. In 2016, she became the first Indigenous woman to receive an electoral college vote for vice president.

Lozen

To some, she is the “Apache Joan of Arc.” You’ve likely heard of Geronimo, but you’ve probably never heard of Lozen (meaning “Dexterous Horse Thief”), a medicine woman, prophetess, midwife and two-spirit warrior, who fought by his side with her brother, Victorio. She could ride and shoot and was a brilliant military strategist who seemed to be able to predict the enemy’s movements — skills that became invaluable once the U.S. government began encroaching on Apache lands. She fought alongside Geronimo for six years until she was imprisoned at a military arsenal in Alabama, where she died of tuberculosis and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Wilma Mankiller

In 1985, Wilma Mankiller became the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. During her tenure as Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Mankiller created a job center, increased the number of tribal health clinics, brought businesses to the Cherokee jurisdiction and added summer programs for young people as well as adult literacy programs. President Bill Clinton appointed her to be an adviser to the federal government on tribal affairs. Later, Clinton would grant her the 1998 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Amonute “Pocahontas” Matoaka

The historical figure we know by her nickname “Pocahontas” (playful one) was named Amonute and went by the name Matoaka. She was born around 1595 and was the daughter of Chief Powhatan, the leader of the Powhatan tribal nation of 30 Algonquin communities. In 1607, English people arrived on Powhatan land. Matoaka was a liaison and communicator at a time of violence from English colonizers. In 1608, she helped successfully negotiate the release of Powhatan prisoners. After marrying Kocoum in 1610, Matoaka was kidnapped during a war between the Powhatan people and the English. While in captivity, she learned English and is believed to be the first Powhatan Native woman to convert to Christianity. Four years later, she married John Rolfe, a relationship that also strategically contributed to peace among Powhatan and English people.

Marlena Myles

Marlena Myles is based in St. Paul and has gained recognition as being one of the few Dakota women creating digital art based on Indigenous history, languages and oral traditions. Her art includes fabric patterns, animations and illustrations, and she incorporates Minnesota’s Indigenous history and background.

She often shares resources for those willing to learn and experience parts of the Dakota culture. Her website has many of her works.

Autumn Peltier

Autumn Peltier, 16, Anishinaabe-kwe of the Wikwemikong First Nation in northern Ontario, Canada is an internationally recognized water protector that has been named a “water warrior,” since she first addressed world leaders at the UN General Assembly in 2018 at just thirteen years old. She works to raise awareness to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the United Nations about hundreds of unsafe drinking water issues of First Nations people. Peltier encourages youth around the world to protect Mother Earth and sacred, living water to ensure humanity’s survival. For three years in a row, Peltier has been nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize.

Sacagawea

Sacagawea is a Lemhi Shoshone Native American explorer born circa 1788, and the daughter of a Shoshone chief. At around age 12 she was captured and sold to a French Canadian trapper who bought her and forced her into a non-consensual marriage. At around 16 years of age, she had joined the Lewis and Clark Expedition as a Shoshone interpreter. She has played a major role in achieving the expedition’s objectives in the Louisiana Territories. She was a key player in the expedition and was credited with facilitating contacts with the Native populations. In current times, there is a monument erected in her honor and a gold dollar coin with her face on it.

Maria Tallchief

Maria Tallchief was born on January 24, 1925 in Fairfax, Oklahoma to a father who was a member of the Osega Nation. Her family relocated to California, during her childhood, to nurture and advance her and her younger sister’s dance ambitions and provide them with better opportunities. At 17, she relocated to New York City in hopes of joining a major ballet company. She was the first American to perform in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. She is considered the first American Prima Ballerina and is believed to have revolutionized ballet.

Annie Dodge Wauneka

Annie Dodge Wauneka was an influential member of the Navajo Nation as a member of the Navajo Nation Council. As a member and three-term head of the council’s Health and Welfare Committee, she worked to improve the health and education of the Navajo. Wauneka is widely known for her countless efforts to improve health in the Navajo Nation, focusing mostly on the eradication of tuberculosis within her nation. She also authored a dictionary, in which translated English medical terms into the Navajo language. She even hosted a biweekly radio show in Navajo to promote modern health practices. In 1963, Wauneka became the first Native American to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Lini Wilkins

“We are all striving, praying, desiring the same things – that is hózhǫ́ – (love, beauty, balance, joy, kinship) in the midst of our differences.” – Lini Wilkins

Lini Wilkins is a Twin Cities poet, actor and grandmother. Lini grew up on the Dine (Navajo) reservation in Arizona, an hour north of the Grand Canyon. As a child, she followed her grandmother, a medicine woman around while collecting medicinal herbs for ceremonies. At an early age, Lini was mandated to attend boarding School by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Lini has used the traumas she experienced as a child in boarding schools and observed throughout her life and has transformed it into beautiful words and a relationship with her daughter.

Niltooli Wilkins

After growing up in many different states across the U.S., Niltooli and her family settled in the Twin Cities. Her father is an author and professor of Native American Studies and Political Science and her mom, Lini, grew up on the Navajo reservation in Tuba City, Arizona. Lini is one of ten siblings; only two no longer live on the reservation. Tooli fell in love with tennis at the age of eight finding it was a constructive place to take anger, frustrations and pain out on this little yellow ball. Tennis is a predominantly white, wealthy sport, so Tooli was around a lot of white, wealthy kids. Upon completing high school, Tooli earned a full ride to play D1 college tennis and became a teaching professional.

This list is just a handful of the amazing Native American women who have shaped our culture and changed the world for the better. Learn more about Native American Heritage Month.

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