The Native American Women Missing from Your History Textbooks

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

When one has the opportunity to receive an education on Native American women in the history of the United States, the names Sacagawea and Pocahontas are commonly the names heard more often than others. These two women are inherently important, as they play large roles in American history. Pocahontas saved the lives of captive Native Americans during the settling of Jamestown, Virginia, and without Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark would not have had the ability to successfully explore the Louisiana Territory. Common white-centric histories on these women center around their explorations at the hands of colonizers, and these heroines of history undoubtably deserve a more expansive and appropriate representation of their strength and larger contributions.

With a mid-term election filled with firsts for Native American women in politics, I find it appropriate to revisit historical firsts for Native American women that are missing from history textbooks. The purpose of this piece draws influence from the American public-school system’s provision of a narrow historical framework on Native American women, often times erasing important figures. Furthermore, I insist the necessity in including Sharice Davids, the first openly gay Native American woman elected to Kansas’s third congressional district, and Deb Halaand, one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, into future revisions of these histories.

Biawacheeitchish (Woman Chief in English) was born in the early 1800s to the Gros Ventres people and passed away in 1858. Taking on traditionally masculine roles, she assumed leadership positions and became renowned in her marksmanship, horse riding, and warrior status. She led wars, and quickly became recognized as one of the three highest ranked members of 160 lodges. Despite the history of Biawacheeitchish remaining somewhat of a mystery, her contributions and status mark her as an important figure of Native American women’s history.

Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915) was the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Noticing the mistreatment of Native American communities by medical doctors, her pursuits were fueled by the necessity to provide her community with healthcare opportunities. Picotte traveled reservation to reservation treating people for various illnesses and spreading knowledge on hygiene and overall health. Quickly becoming a pillar in her community, she participated in political action towards the bettering of healthcare, and chaired the state health Committee in Nebraska.

Mary Golda Ross (1908-2008) was the first Native American woman that held the title of engineer. Commonly remembered for her contributions to aerospace design, she contributed largely to the ability for conceptualizing unmanned and manned space exploration. She worked on countless secretive projects such as the Skunk Works project; Ross was one of the forty engineers that had founded this specific project as well.

These are only a few of the countless Native American women that hold titles of being “the first” and have largely contributed to the bettering of their communities, as well as society as a whole (such as Ross, who without, space exploration may have taken a longer route to achieve). When I first discovered these women, I was shocked that I hadn’t heard of them sooner. One would assume that Biawacheeitisch would find a home in conversations with chiefs such as Geronimo or Tecumseh, or that a mention of Ross would appear in histories of space exploration, yet they do not. As these Native American women are absent from the common history of the United States, I contend that we must seek to revise it and give these women the credit they deserve and that their achievements warrant. 

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