Top 15 Most Famous Native Americans
Before the arrival of the colonists, the Native Americans had already secured a foot-hold over the vast expanses of America. Initially the Native Americans were treated with an almost cursory respect as the new settlers and pilgrims were afraid, apprehensive, yet friendly and hopeful. The newcomers befriended many and made what they thought were close ties with their new brethren. But, unfortunately, it was not to last and disease coupled with the settlers ravenous desire to claim land as their own, destroyed everything the native peoples held dear. However, most of these mistakes have since been admitted, and reparation has been made. Fortunately history has not forgotten the many important faces and contributions of the original Americans. In honor of the United States’ Thanksgiving, here are 15 such heroes.
15. Red Cloud 1822-1909
Perhaps one of the most capable warriors from the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribesmen ever faced by the US military, Makhpiya Luta, his Sioux name, led his people in what is known as Red Cloud’s War. This battle was for the rights to the area known as Powder River Country in Northern Wyoming and Southern Montana. Eventually he led his people during their time on reservation.
14. Cochise 1815-1874
Though actually pronounced K-you Ch-Ish, this Apache leader is second only to Geronimo when it comes to that tribe’s historical significance. Often described as having the classical Indian frame; muscular, large for the time, and known to wear his long, black hair in a traditional pony tail, Cochise aided in the uprising to resist intrusions by Mexicans and American in the 19th century.
13. Maria TallChief 1925-
Born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief to an Osage Nation father, she became an eventually well-know ballerina. In 1947 Maria began dancing with the New York City Ballet until her retirement in 1965. Soon after she founded the Chicago City Ballet and remained it’s artistic director for many years. Since 1997 she has been an adviser in the Chicago dance schools and continues to astound future dancers with her always-ahead-of-her-skill abilities and will be featured in a PBS special from 2007-2010.
12. Squanto 1581-1622
Assisting the Pilgrims during their first, harsh winter, the Patuxet, Tasquantum (Squanto) befriended the group in order to see them safely through to spring. In 1608, alas, Squanto and several others were kidnapped by Georgie Weymouth and taken aboard ship to England. Though eventually earning a living and learning the English language, Squanto made his return home in 1613 aboard John Smith’s ship only to find his tribe completely wiped out by the plague.
11. Crazy Horse 1840-1877
With a name in his tribe, Lakota: Thasuka Witko, that literally means “His-Horse-is-Crazy”, this Native American was actually born with the name: Cha-O-Ha meaning in Lakotan, “In the Wilderness”, and he was often called Curly due to his hair. In the Great Sioux War of 1876, Crazy Horse led a combined group of nearly 1,500 Lakota and Cheyenne in a surprise attack against General George Crook’s force of 1,000 English men and 300 Crow and Shoshone warriors. The battle, though not substantial in terms of lives lost, nearly prevented Crook from joining up with General Custer, ensuring Custer’s subsequent defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Crazy Horse went on to oppose the US Government in their various decisions on how to handle Indian affairs.
10. Sacajawea 1788-1812
Sacajawea is most well know for accompanying Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during their Corps of Discovery of the Western United States in 1806. She was born in a Shoshone tribe as Agaidika, or “Salmon Eater” in 1788. In February of 1805, just after meeting Lewis and Clark, Lewis assisted in the birth of her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Her face now appears in the dollar coin.
9. Will Rogers 1879-1935
Born William Peen Adair Rogers, a Cherokee-Cowboy, “Will” became best known as an actor, a Vaudvillian, a philanthropist, a social commentator, a comedian, and a presidential candidate. Known as Okalahoma’s favorite son, Rogers was born to a well respected Native American Territory family and learned to ride horses and use a lasso/lariat so well that he was listed in the Guiness Book of World Records for throwing three ropes at once—one around the neck of a horse, another around the rider, and a third around all four legs of the horse. He ultimately traveled around the world several times, made 71 films (50 silent and 21 “talkies”), wrote more than 4,000 nationally-syndicated newspaper columns, and became a world-famous figure. He died in a plane crash in 1935.
Known in his Ottawa tongue as Obwandiyag, Chief Pontiac is most well known for his defense of the Great Lakes Region of the US from the British Troop invasion and occupation. In 1763, Pontiac and 300 of his followers attempted to take Fort Detroit by surprise. Eventually the revolt rose to 900 plus Natives and they eventually took the Fort at The Battle of Bloody Run. Though historically a prominent figure, many are still unsure as to his real importance and to whether or not he was a mere follower rather than a leader. Increasingly ostracized, in 1769 he was assassinated by a Peoria Indian in Illinois.
7. Geronimo 1829-1909
Geronimo (Chiricahua: “one who yawns”; often spelled Goyathlay or Goyahkla in English) was a prominent Native American leader of the Chiricahua Apache who defended his people against the encroachment of the US on their tribal lands for over 25 years. While Geronimo said he was never actually a chief, he was rather a military leader. As a Chiricahua Apache, this meant he was also a spiritual leader. He consistently urged raids and war upon many Mexican and later U.S. groups. Geronimo eventually went on to marry 6 wives, an Apache tradition. He staged what was to be the last great Native American uprising, and eventually moved to a reservation often giving permissions to appear at fairs and schools.
A Shawnee leader whose name means, “Panther in the Sky”, Tecumseh became well known for taking disparate tribes folk and maintaining hold on the land that was rightfully theirs. In 1805, a religious native rebirth led by Tenskwatawa emerged. Tenskwatawa urged natives to reject the ways of the English, and to stop handing over land to the United States. Opposing Tenskwatawa was the Shawnee leader, Black Hoof who was working to maintain a peaceful relationship with the United States. By 1808, tensions built and compelled Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh to move further northwest and establish the village of Prophetstown near Battle Ground, Indiana. He died in the War of 1812.
5. Sitting Bull 1831-1890
Sitting Bull (Sioux: Tatanka Iyotake first named Slon-he, or, literally, slow), was a Hunkpapa Lakota medicine man and holy man. He is famous in both American and Native American history mostly for his major victory at the Battle of Little Bighorn against Custer, where his ‘premonition’ of defeating them became reality. Even today, his name is synonymous with Native American culture, and he is considered to be one of the most famous Native Americans ever.
Though not a traditional tribe chief, even after inheriting a very important medicine bundle, Black Hawk would become more well known as a War Chief. In his tribe’s (Sauk’s) tongue, his name, Makataimeshekiakiak, means, “Be a large black hawk”. During the War of 1812 Black Hawk, so name-shortened by the English, became a fierce and powerful opponent. First fighting on the side of the British, Black Hawk eventually led a band of Sauk and Fox against settlers in Illinois and Wisconsin, eventually dying in Iowa. His legend is kept alive by many claiming to be directly related, like Jim Thorpe. This is, however, myth.
3. Sequoiah 1767-1843
Though the exact location of Sequoiah’s birth and death are unknown due to historically inaccurate writings, he is well known through translation and spoken accounts of having grown up with his mother in Tuskegee, Tennessee. Sequoyah ( S-si-quo-ya in Cherokee) known as George Guess, Guest or Gist, was a silversmith who invented the Cherokee Syllabry, thus earning him a place on the list of inventors of writing systems as well.
2. Pocahontas 1595-1617
Having taken many liberties with her overall appearance, Disney created the image many of us believe to be what Pocahontas may have looked like. This is far from accurate. Though the film’s history is similarly flawed, it does hold some truths. Pocahontas was a Native American woman who married an Englishman called John Rolfe and became a celebrity in London in the last year of her life. She was a daughter of Wahunsunacock (also known as Chief or Emperor Powhatan), who presided over an area comprised of almost all of the neighboring tribes in Virginia (called Tenakomakah then). Her formal names were Matoaka and Amonute; ‘Pocahontas’ was a childhood nickname referring to her frolicsome nature. In her last days she went by Rebecca Rolfe, choosing to live an English life by abandoning her Native American heritage.
Henry Wadworth Longfellow wrote the story ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ loosely based on an actual Native American. Though very little is known of the historical events in which Hiawatha was a part, though he was a great peacemaker and spiritual guide, the story is well known however and much of what can be read can be found here.
Notable Omissions: Chief Joseph, Tatonka, Robbie Robertson, Standing Bear