6 Indigenous Women You Didn't Learn About in History Class

It’s no secret that popular has overlooked both Native Americans and women, and Native American women even more so. As activists, political leaders, performers, and more, indigenous women have been making history for centuries, while receiving little historical credit.  This list represents just a few of the Native American women who have been ignored by history.

1. Alberta Schenck Adams (1928-2009), Civil Rights Activist

Photo Credit: AlbertaSchenckAdams.com

Often referred to as the Inupiaq Rosa Parks, Alberta Schenck Adams championed the civil rights of Alaskan natives at the age of just 17, ten years before the historic Brown v. The Board of Education decision that reversed segregation laws.  

As an Inupiaq woman growing up in the 1940s, segregation was a constant feature in Adams’s life.  When she was 17 years old, Adams and her white boyfriend sat together in the “Whites Only” section of a movie theater.  After refusing to leave the segregated section, Adams was arrested and jailed. Her arrest sparked massive protests in the Inupiaq communities of Alaska, whose efforts helped her be freed from jail after one night.  Upon her release, Adams wrote a letter to the governor of Alaska reflecting on her experience growing up in segregated Alaska and her time in jail. The governor was so inspired by her story, that he introduced the state’s first anti-discrimination bill, which was passed in 1945.

2. Cecilia Fire Thunder (1946--), Public Health Advocate and First Female President of the Oglala Sioux

Photo Credit: This and That Blog

Born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Cecilia Fire Thunder spent most of her childhood in California where she also attended nursing school.  During her time in southern California, she worked in community based clinics that served impoverished families and lobbied local doctors to donate time on their off days.  

She returned to her reservation in 1986 and worked at the county hospital caring for babies born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which she later served on the National Health Advisory Board for.  Fire Thunder also did extensive work at a domestic violence shelter with women who were victims of violence and sexual assault.

In 2004, Fire Thunder was elected the first female president of the Oglala Sioux.  A staunch defender of accessible birth control and a woman’s right to choice, Fire Thunder attempted to open a Planned Parenthood clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation, but violated state law and was removed from office.  Today, she remains active on the Pine Ridge Reservation speaking on behalf of domestic violence survivors and children’s health initiatives.

3. Maria Tallchief (1925-2013), Dancer

Photo Credit: National Women's History Museum

Did you know that America’s first ever Prima Ballerina was also Native American?  Born in Fairfax, Oklahoma to an Osage father, Maria Tall Chief moved to California at a young age and quickly caught the attention of noted choreographer George Balanchine, the founder of the New York City Ballet.  Tall Chief is widely credited for leading ballet into popular culture and was also the first American woman to perform at the elite Russian Ballet Theater. When her dancing career ended, Tall Chief received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center and continued to teach at ballet schools throughout the world.

4. Kimberly Teehee (1969--), Political Lobbyist

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

A member of the Cherokee nation, Kimberly Teehee has become one of the most active policy advisers on Native American issues.  She first served as Director of Native American outreach for President Clinton’s campaign and later went on to serve as the first ever Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs in the Obama administration.  While in office, Teehee added protections for Native women assaulted by non-Natives to the Violence Against Women Act and lobbied for increased civil rights protections for Native American women. Today, Teehee continues to lobby on behalf of Cherokee business and government affairs.

5. Toby Riddle (1848-1920), Translator and Diplomat

Photo Credit: Find A Grave

A member of the Modoc tribe, Toby Riddle served as an interpreter between the Modoc Nation and the United States Army during the Modoc War of 1873.  As a member of the peace commission established to settle the war, Riddle was the main liaison between the two military forces. While out on assignment, she overheard a plan to attack the peace committee’s chair Alfred Meacham.  Riddle was able to reach Meachum in time to warn him of the coming attack and saved his life. Inspired by her bravery, Meacham became a staunch advocate for Native American rights in the 1870s and 1880s, telling Riddle’s story across the country.  Riddle today stands as one of the only Native American women to be awarded a military pension from the United States Congress for heroic actions during peace negotiations.

6. Gladys Tantaquidgeon (1899-2005), Public Historian

Photo Credit: Mohegan Tribe

Born to Mohegan parents, Gladys Tantaquidgeon began training as a young girl in the practice of traditional Mohegan medicine.  At the age of 20, she attended the University of Pennsylvania on a full scholarship where she continued her study of indigenous culture and healing through Anthropology.  Upon finishing her schooling, Tantaquidgeon took a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs working as a Native Arts Specialist helping tribal groups in the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming preserve and create a market for their traditional arts.  In 1931, she founded the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum, which stands today as the oldest Native American museum owned and operated by indigenous people. Over the course of her long life, Tantaquidgeon also served as a librarian in a women’s prison, worked to preserve traditional Algonquian languages, and wrote several books on the medicinal practices of the Mohegans.


These six women represent just a fraction of inspiring indigenous people whose stories have yet to be told.  Do your part to educate yourself and others on the true tales of these important, history-making women.