7 Famous Native American Women with Remarkable Stories
Meet seven courageous Native American women who impacted the history of the Old West.
Old West history and lore usually neglects the role of Native American women. This is not unexpected when considering the traditions of many of these patriarchal groups.
The Carnegie Museum of Natural History gives the example of Lakota women who were considered partners with men in their society, but with express domestic roles. This tends to be true among the different Native American tribes, though it is important to emphasize that each culture had distinct gender roles.
For example, the American Museum of Natural History describes how in Pueblo society, women usually owned houses and land. In fact, husbands moved into their wives’ homes in Pueblo culture.
Another reason why Native American women may be neglected in the historic record is because the tribes did not write down their histories. The written record of what we know about Native Americans is usually from the perspective of male writers of European origin. Since these records come from male-dominated societies, it is natural that this bias would be implicit in their writings.
Despite these faults of history, there are many Native American women from the time of the American West who were so charismatic, powerful, or outspoken that they compel any historian to write about them.
Here are seven remarkable ones to consider.
Sacagawea is so famous that her face has graced United States coinage. The Shoshone woman is best known for being a guide and translator for the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition in the early 19th century.
According to the National Women’s History Museum, Sacagawea was born around the year 1788 to the Lemhi tribe of the Shoshone, but was captured at a young age by an enemy tribe, the Hidatsa, and enslaved.
She was taken to the region about today’s Bismarck, North Dakota, and exposed to whites who traded with them at a young age. One of these was Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian who lived among the tribe. Britannica tells us that he bought Sacagawea to add to his growing number of wives.
When the Lewis and Clark expedition arrived and spent the winter of 1804 to 1805, they hired Charbonneau as a translator. His relationship with Sacagawea was thought to be a boon since they would encounter the Shoshone as they pushed west. They waited, therefore, for her to give birth to her son on February 11, 1805. With the baby on her back, they pushed ahead.
Sacagawea was remarkable. In one instance when her boat nearly capsized and knocked important contents out of it, she remained cool headed, quickly retrieving documents and instruments.
She made the expedition clothing, and found edible plants. She eased passage for the white explorers, and the presence of the Shoshone mother and child lessened the anxieties of various tribes they encountered.
This was especially true among the Shoshone, where she was reunited with her brother. Sacagawea was so valuable to the expedition that this group of older men listened to her advice when establishing winter quarters when they reached the Pacific Northwest.
It is unclear when Sacagawea died, but it was most likely in 1812 of typhoid fever. However, some traditions hold that she lived far longer. Either way, she has been immortalized as an important figure in American history.
2. Buffalo Calf Road Woman
In traditional Cheyenne society, women were viewed as subordinate helpmates to men. However, Buffalo Calf Road Woman broke this mold. She was, according to the Encyclopedia of Women in the American West, likely born in the 1850s into the Dull Knife band.
Buffalo Calf Road’s early life is sketchy. She was married to a warrior named Black Coyote and with him had two children. She may have been witness to the Sand Creek massacre of 1864, which would have undoubtedly fostered a burning hatred toward the United States.
She made her first verified appearance of the Great Sioux War at the Battle of the Rosebud on June 17, 1876, where she was the sole female fighter, and where she gained fame for rescuing her brother who was pinned down by gunfire. According to research published in the journal Frontiers, the fight was named the “Battle Where the Girl Saved Her Brother” to honor her courage.
Buffalo Calf Road also fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In fact, recent Northern Cheyenne oral histories suggest that she may have been the warrior responsible for knocking Custer off his horse. True or not, Buffalo Calf Road certainly distinguished herself because she was given a new honorific name, Brave Woman.
After the Northern Cheyenne were defeated and forced to Indian Territory, Buffalo Calf Road was among the bands that attempted to leave the squalid reservation. In the process, she led the women in battle against the U.S. Army.
In 1879, she was captured and imprisoned, where she died of disease. Her husband, upon learning the news, killed himself.
3. Susan La Flesche
This was a time of great pressure upon the Native Americans of the Plains, who were succumbing to white encroachment. La Flesche’s father, Chief Iron Eye, saw the ominous writing on the wall and said, “Do you always want to be simply called those Indians or do you want to go to school and be somebody in the world?”
It was in this way that La Flesche learned the traditions of her people, but also gained a Western education. The National Park Service describes how she was sent to white religious schools on the reservation and then off the Omaha reservation to New Jersey where she attended the Hampton Institute.
Incredibly, she then applied and was admitted to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She graduated a year early and at the top of her class.
While La Flesche may have been able to obtain a more lucrative position in white society, she returned to the reservation when she was 24. She was the only doctor for the 1,200 people on the reservation. Incredibly devoted, she would treat people at all hours and times.
She made housecalls, often trekking at all hours in all types of extreme weather conditions. She also was a strong advocate of temperance, seeing how alcohol had so negatively impacted Native Americans. She even was able to through donations build a hospital on the reservation, the first time one had been established without the use of government funds.
She would die on September 18, 1915, after a lifetime of service to her people.
The Apache woman named Lozen was different from all other Apache women because she was the only one that was a full time warrior. A to Z of American Indian Women details her birth at around the year 1840, somewhere in the Apache lands, which included portions of northern Mexico, New Mexico, and Arizona.
From a young age, Lozen displayed prowess like her older warrior brother, Victorio. She became an adept shooter, expert rider, and champion runner. Yet tradition holds she was also imbued with two supernatural abilities: it was said she could heal wounds, as well as tell where the enemies of the Apache were.
While there are other stories about Lozen which may be mythical or apocryphal, she first comes into the historic record in the late 1860s when the Apache started resisting white encroachment.
According to History, her band was relocated to the harsh San Carlos Reservation in 1869, which precipitated war. Lozen went on to fight in the 1870s and then joined the Apache chief Geronimo in 1882. One story tells how she crawled under bullet fire to retrieve ammunition for the Apaches.
This earned her the nickname, “The Warrior Woman.”
After Geronimo’s surrender in 1886, Lozen was removed to a prison in Florida for a year, before being relocated to Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama. Under miserable conditions, she died of tuberculosis at age 50.
5. Sarah Winnemucca
Around the year 1844, Thoc-me-tony, or “Shell Flower,” was born to the Paiute tribe of Nevada. According to Britannica, her father was the Paiute chief Winnemucca and her grandfather was the eminent medicine chief Truckee.
Winnemucca became a translator for the United States’ Indian Office. As such, the National Park Service explains how she helped relocate bands to reservations and negotiated on the behalf of tribes for more supplies and support. In this position she visited federal installations, including locations where Native American prisoners were held.
Her witnessing of the poor conditions of these facilities as well as the treatment of Native Americans in general made her an outspoken advocate for Native American rights.
She pointed out the hypocrisy of American ideals of liberty and equality versus the actual treatment and conditions of her people. In 1880, she even had the opportunity to meet President Rutherford B. Hayes and pleaded that her tribe be allowed to return to their homeland.
While the First Lady wept, the president was not moved enough to change his mind.
Perhaps her greatest contribution was her 1883 book, Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. This book, which is a rare instance of Native Americans writing about themselves during the period, described the life of the Paiutes and how it had been disrupted by white settlement.
Winnemucca would die in Montana in 1891, but not before bringing to light the issues of injustice facing Native American people, and their ongoing conflicts with the United States.
6. Lyda Conley
Even after Native Americans had lost their lands, many continued to fight to maintain their heritage, dignity, and history. One of the greatest examples of these fighters was Lyda Conley.
Conley was born around 1868 or 1869, according to the National Women’s History Museum. She was a descendant of a chief of Kansas’s Wyandotte tribe on her mother’s side and her father was an English farmer. An enterprising and well–educated woman, Conley at various points in her career was an attorney, telegraph operator, college teacher, and Sunday school teacher.
Where Conley made history was in her impassioned defense of the Huron Indian Cemetery in Kansas City. This was the Wyandotte’s traditional burial ground and its name comes from the fact that the Wyandotte were (not without controversy) often called Hurons by whites.
In 1906, the federal government sold the cemetery land and planned to relocate the bodies. Conley was outraged. She sued the government. In an interview kept by the Kansas Public Library she stated, “No lawyer could plead for the grave of my mother as I could, no lawyer could have the heart interest in the case that I have.”
When asked if she thought she could win she said:
The land was once deeded in perpetuity, by the government, as a burial place for the Wyandotte tribe; by common consent it has been used as such all these years, and congress overstepped its authority when it dared to pass a law to disturb those graves. If I lose, then I will admit that the constitution of the United States is as Greek to me.”
She argued her case before the Supreme Court on January 14, 1910. She lost, with the Supreme Court asserting the government had the right to sell the land. Still, her advocacy won the backing of Kansas state senator Charles Curtis, who sponsored a bill which became law to protect the site.
For the rest of her life, Conley would carefully guard the cemetery and even spent ten days in jail for her attempts to protect it from disrespect. Conley died in 1946 — a victim of a mugging — and her body was put to rest in the same place as her ancestors.
Related read: 9 Fascinating Facts About Cherokee Bill, Ruthless Outlaw
7. Woman Chief
One of the earliest women leaders of Native Americans is found among the Crow. Born in 1806 probably as “Pine Leaf,” she was from the Gros Ventre (White Clay) tribe, explains the Montana Historical Society’s Women’s History Matters project.
She was kidnapped at a young age by a Crow warrior who wanted an adopted replacement for his dead son. Tradition holds that her new father raised her as a warrior. She was reportedly as strong as most men, athletic, and attractive.
She went to battle for the Crow against the Blackfeet, where it was said in her first fight she killed two men and took many horses.
For her bravery, skill, and gift of strategy she was called Bíawacheeitchish, meaning “Woman Chief.” Historynet tells us that when her adopted father (i.e. her kidnapper) died, she took his place as buffalo hunter for her lodge. She eventually became the third ranking Crow chief, which was unheard of in Crow society.
Sadly, Woman Chief’s curiosity about her origins got the best of her. In 1854, she convinced four Crows to join her on a peace mission to the Gros Ventre.
At first it went well, since the Gros Ventre were astounded to see a tall, strong, and beautiful chief come and speak their tongue. However, as they traveled together, something must have sparked the Gros Ventre’s anger: they reportedly used their muskets to shoot and kill all five of them.
Related read: The Origins of Scalping: A True and Surprising History
More Old West Reads
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- 10 Blood Meridian Quotes That Define Cormac McCarthy’s West
- 50 Native American Proverbs, Sayings & Wisdom Quotes
- The Fighting Men & Women of the Fetterman Massacre
- 100 + Native American Women Who Changed the World, KB Schaller
- Buffalo Calf Road Woman: The Story Of A Warrior Of The Little Bighorn, Rosemary Agonito
- Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Stephen Ambrose
- A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America’s First Indian Doctor, Joe Starita
- Warrior Woman: The Story of Lozen, Apache Warrior and Shaman, Peter Aleshire
- Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins
Joseph A. Williams is an author, historian, and librarian based in Connecticut. He has authored three books: The Sunken Gold, Seventeen Fathoms Deep, and Four Years Before the Mast.