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Native American Women

Nanye-Hi and congresswoman Sharice Davids

Written by our intern, David Welker.

Native American Heritage Month

A lot has changed since 1990 when President George W. Bush declared the month of November as National American Indian Heritage Month, or commonly referred to as Native American Heritage Month.  It was intended to recognize, honor, and celebrate people of indigenous descent. During this month, it is important to celebrate the rich history, diverse cultures and unforgettable contributions of our nation’s first inhabitants.

Efforts for Recognition

These contributions range from sign language and the first Thanks Giving to snow machines and rubber. Although National Native American Heritage Month only came about within the last 28 years, people like Arthur Caswell Parker, a Seneca Indian, and director of the Rochester Museum in New York, have been fighting for national recognition for the culture’s historical legacy since the 1900s! [i] It took some time and help from a few other Indian rights activists, but the first American Indian Day was finally celebrated in New York in May 1916.

Native American Female Heroes

Often when we think of the great Native American heroes of the past, we imagine brave male warriors and chief who led their people through war and the long journey into an uncertain future. However, there have been some formidable women who fought fearlessly in battle, served as committed leaders, undertook dangerous journeys and saved lives. In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, let’s discuss some of the female heroes.

Naye-Hi: Cherokee Fighter

Nanye-Hi, also known as Nancy Ward, was born into the Cherokee Wolf clan in 1738. In 1755, she aided her husband during a fight against another tribe, the Creeks, by chewing the lead for bullets to use as ammunition. When her husband was fatally shot, Nanye-Hi grabbed his rifle, rallied her fellow fighters, and entered the battle herself[i]. The Cherokee tribe was victorious that day.

Sarah Winnemucca: Northern Paiute Army Scout 

Born in 1844, Sarah Winnemucca was the daughter and granddaughter of Northern Paiute chiefs. She spoke English and Spanish, in addition to three Indian dialects. In the 1870s, these abilities led to her serving as an interpreter at Fort McDermitt and then on the Malheur Reservation.[i] 

During the Bannock War of 1878, Winnemuccca showed her strength by working as an army scout and rescuing a group of Paiute Indians, including her father. After the war, some Paiute were forcibly relocated to the Yakima Reservation. Winnemucca, who had already seen how American Indians were at the mercy of sometimes corrupt reservation agents, decided to advocate for Native American land rights and other systemic improvements. 

Davids and Haalan: Congress Trailblazers

Fast forward 140 years and we have a new kind of Native American female heroes. While there have been Native American congressmen and senators in the past – Charles Cutis, a Kaw-Osage from Kansas, went from the U.S. Senate to serve as the Vice-President under Herbert Hoover – there has never been a Native American woman in Congress, that is, until now. 

Deb Haaland

Congresswoman Deb Haaland

On November 6, 2018, Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland became the first Native American women to be electedinto Congress. Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk nation, Democrat, and self-proclaimed gay, defeated incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder in Kansas. After receiving a law degree from Cornell University, she focused her “career on bringing equity and opportunity to all communities.” Raised by a single mom, Sharice decided to run for office after completing a year as a White House Fellow in Washington during the Obama-Trump transition. 

Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, takes the place of Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico. Like Sharice, Deb has a law degree (University of New Mexico). Deb is the first Native American Woman in the country to chair a state party. As the first Chairwoman elected to the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors, she oversaw business operations of the second largest tribal gaming enterprise in New Mexico. Haaland has successfully advocated for the Laguna Development Corporation to make policies and commitment to earth-friendly business practices. Her focus is on advocating for the underrepresented and advancing progressive values.

Like their ancestors, Davids and Haaland are breaking outdated perceptions, creating opportunities not only for themselves for but others within, and in the case of the new congresswomen, outside their Native American Communities. It is fair to state that the complexities of Native American culture run much deeper than gender lines or roles.

Become an Ally

Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland exemplify what it meant to be an ally for the underrepresentedYou, too, can contribute toward the inclusion and support of marginalized groups. Through our workshop Become an Ally, participants gain strategies for reducing biases and becoming effective allies. In a growing global workplace, it is imperative to build culturally competent and inclusive organizations.

Schedule your workshop by December 15, 2018, and save 20% on one hour, 1/2 day or full-day training. 

[i] Infoplease, Infoplease, www.infoplease.com/us/race-population/native-american-heritage-month/origin.

[ii] “Nancy Ward.” History of American Women, 2 Apr. 2017, www.womenhistoryblog.com/2008/11/nanyehi-nancy-ward.html.                         

  [iii] Sarah Winnemucca.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 26 Apr. 2016, www.biography.com/people/sarah-winnemucca-9534523.