The first evidence showing indigenous peoples inhabiting North America indicates that they migrated here from Siberia over 11,000 years ago. They lived here in peace and prosperity until around the early seventeenth century when Europeans first arrived and brought with them their own civilization and culture. Unfortunately, today Native Americans only account for about 1.5 percent of the US population and few records remain of their rich and varied history. From Squanto, interpreter to the pilgrims in the new world to John Herrington, the first tribally enrolled Native American Indian astronaut, these are 25 great Native Americans That Helped Define History.
Wilma Mankiller worked for several years as a leading advocate for the Cherokee people, and became the first woman to serve as their principal chief in 1985. After leaving office, Mankiller remained an activist for Native American’s and women’s rights until her death on April 6, 2010, in Adair County, Oklahoma.
Touch the Clouds
Born around 1836 in present-day South Dakota, Touch the Clouds was son of Chief Lone Horn and (his mother) Stands on the Ground, and brother to Chief Big Foot. He stood at about seven feet tall and was known for his incredible strength and skill on the battlefield. He became the chief of the Minneconjou Teton Lakota and kept his position until his death on September 5, 1905.
The Mohawk Indian chief Thayendanegea, also known as Joseph Brant, served as a spokesman for his people, a Christian missionary of the Anglican church, and a British military officer during the American War of Independence. He is remembered for his efforts in unifying upper New York Indian tribes and leading them in terrorizing raids against patriot communities, in support of Great Britain’s efforts to repress the rebellion. He is also credited with the establishment of the Indian reservation on the Grand River in Canada where the neighboring town of Brantford, Ontario, bears his name.
Tecumseh took part in a series of raids of Kentucky and Tennessee frontier settlements in the 1780s, and emerged as a prominent chief by 1800. Tecumseh transformed his brother’s religious followers into a political movement, leading to the foundation of the Prophetstown settlement in 1808. After Prophetstown was destroyed during the Battle of Tippecanoe, the Shawnee chief fought with pro-British forces in the War of 1812 until his death in the Battle of the Thames.
Squanto, also known as Tisquantum, was a Native American of the Patuxet tribe who acted as an interpreter and guide to the Pilgrims during their first winter in the New World. Interestingly, in 1614 Squanto was one of the first Native Americans to travel to Europe (albeit against his will) when he was kidnapped by English explorer Thomas Hunt, who brought him to Spain, where he was sold into slavery. Squanto escaped, eventually returning to North America in 1619, where, as noted above, he aided the Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth until his death in 1622.
Sitting Bull was a Teton Dakota Indian chief under whom the Sioux tribes united in their struggle for survival in the Great Plains. He joined his first war party at age fourteen and soon gained a reputation for his bravery and skill in battle. In 1868 the Sioux accepted peace with the US government, but when gold was discovered in the Black Hills in the mid-1870s, a rush of white prospectors invaded Sioux lands. Sitting Bull once again fought bravely but was arrested and killed in 1890.
Chief Joseph was a Nez Percé chief who, faced with settlement by whites of tribal lands in Oregon, led his people in a dramatic effort to escape to Canada. When the United States attempted to force the Nez Percé to move to a reservation in 1877, Chief Joseph reluctantly agreed. However, after the murder of a group of white settlers, tensions erupted again, and Chief Joseph tried to lead his people to Canada in what is considered one of the greatest retreats in North American military history.
Sacagawea was a legendary Indian woman who led Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition to find the Pacific Ocean. She was a Shoshone interpreter and the only woman on the expedition into the American West. In 2000, almost two hundred years after her death, she was featured on a dollar coin issued by the US Mint in honor of her contribution to the Corps of Discovery.
Born in Nebraska in 1822, Lakota chief Red Cloud was an important figure in the nineteenth-century land battle between Native Americans and the US government. He successfully resisted developments of the Bozeman trail through Montana territory, and led the opposition against the development of a road through Wyoming and Montana for two years—a period that came to be known as Red Cloud’s War. Red Cloud died in South Dakota in 1909.
Very few Choctaws from the early 1800’s are better known than Pushmataha. The man who negotiated several well-publicized treaties with the United States and led Choctaws in support of the Americans during the War of 1812 is mentioned in nearly all the histories that include the Choctaws.
Ira Hayes was an Akimel O’odham (Pima) Indian, born in Sacaton, Arizona, on January 12, 1923. On August 26, 1942, Ira Hayes enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve in Phoenix during World War II and a few years later he made history by becoming the only Native American to participate in the famous WW II flag raising on February 25, 1945, on Mount Suribachi in Iwo Jima.
Despite not knowing as much as we might think about Pocahontas’s life, her story has fascinated people for more than four centuries and still inspires people today. She became a Disney figure, and her “interracial” love story will undoubtedly continue to inspire people all over the world.
Maria Tallchief was a revolutionary American ballerina who broke barriers for Native American women. Tallchief grew up in Los Angeles, California, where she studied ballet for many years. Her career spanned the globe and led to a short marriage to George Balanchine. She died on April 11, 2013, at age eighty-eight, in Chicago, Illinois.
Keokuk was a chief of the Sauk/Sac tribe in central North America noted for his policy of cooperation with the American government, which led to conflict with Black Hawk, who led part of their band into the Black Hawk War. Keokuk County, Iowa, and the town of the same name where he is buried are named after him.
On November 2002, John Herrington became the first tribally enrolled Native American Indian astronaut to go to outer space during NASA’s STS-113 flight.
There’s a great debate about who’s the greatest North American sportsman in history: some will tell you Babe Ruth; others Muhammad Ali; basketball fans will stick with Michael Jordan or LeBron James, and hockey fans will say Wayne Gretzky. Recently the name of the most decorated Olympian ever, swimmer Michael Phelps, has been dropped in this debate but most sports historians will agree that the most versatile North American athlete ever was Jim Thorpe. Of Native American and European ancestry Thorpe won Olympic gold medals for the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, played American football at the collegiate and professional level, and played professional baseball and basketball too. In a poll of sports fans conducted by ABC Sports, Thorpe was voted the Greatest Athlete of the Twentieth Century out of fifteen sports “gods” including those we mentioned above.
Chief Pontiac became known for his role in Pontiac’s Rebellion, an American Indian struggle against the British occupation of the Great Lakes area. He enlisted support from other Indian tribes and staged attacks of British forts but eventually agreed to sign a peace treaty in July 1766. He was murdered by a Peoria Indian in 1769.
Hiawatha was a pre-historical Native American leader and co-founder of the Iroquois confederacy. Depending on the source of the narrative he was a leader of the Onondaga, the Mohawk, or both. According to some sources he was born an Onondaga, but adopted into the Mohawk.
Hakadah (Charles Eastman)
Hakadah, better known as Charles Eastman, was one of the first Native Americans to become certified as a medical doctor, after he graduated from Boston University. In the early twentieth century, he was considered one of the most prolific authors and speakers on Sioux ethno-history and American Indian affairs. Additionally, he is considered the first Native American author to write American history from the native point of view.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell
On November 3, 1992, Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado made history by becoming the first Native American to serve in the US Senate in more than sixty years. A member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, Campbell was also a world-famous athlete and captain of the US judo team for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Born sometime between 1840 – 1845, Crazy Horse was an Oglala Sioux Indian chief who took part in the Battle of Little Big Horn. In 1877, Crazy Horse surrendered but was killed in a scuffle with soldiers. Long after his death Crazy Horse is still revered as a visionary leader who fought hard to preserve his people’s traditions and way of life.
Leader of the Chiricahua , Chief Cochise was one of the great Apache Indian leaders who fought against Anglo-Americans. He led an uprising against the American government in 1861 and died in 1872. Cochise County, Arizona, is named after him.
Sequoyah was a half-Cherokee inventor who after being injured in a hunting accident became a silversmith. In 1809, he started creating a simple Cherokee alphabet consisting of eighty-six symbols and in 1821 introduced it to the Cherokee council. For the next twenty years, he traveled and taught his language until his death in 1843.
Born in 1767 in the Virginia Colony, Black Hawk was the leader of a faction of Sauk and Fox Indians. He joined the British in several battles in the War of 1812 and in 1832 he led his people across the Mississippi to resist further white settler encroachment.
Geronimo, arguably one of the most famous Native Americans in history, was born in June 1829, in No-Doyohn Canyon, Mexico. He fought European colonization in the Southwest by participating in raids into Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico. After years of war Geronimo finally surrendered to American troops in 1886 and spent the last two decades of his life as a prisoner of war.