— Women you should know

These are just 8 of the Native women you should have learned about in history class

4Elizabeth (Wanamaker) Peratrovich (1911-1958)

In 1945, Elizabeth (Wanamaker) Peratrovich (Tlingit) was instrumental in gaining passage of America’s first anti-discrimination law. Her husband Roy (also Tlingit) was mayor of their small Alaskan town for several years, but they moved to Juneau for greater opportunities for their children. There, they encountered “No Natives Allowed” signs, along with other discrimination. They worked for passage of the Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act until it finally came before the Senate. Elizabeth gave the final testimony at the hearing. Sen. Allan Shattuck had earlier asked, “Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites, with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?”

Elizabeth responded, “I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them, of our Bill of Rights.” In 1988, Alaska named February 16th, the day the law passed, as “Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.”

5Florence Owen Thompson (1903-1983)

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If you studied the Great Depression in history class, you probably saw Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph, Migrant Mother, which depicts a dust-covered woman gazing to the side of the frame, with her two children cowering beside her. The mother is Florence Owen Thompson, a Cherokee woman who had come to California from Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) several years before the Depression. There, she was widowed and lived as an itinerant farmhand while raising her children.

Though the photograph became iconic and furthered Lange’s career, Thompson preferred privacy and continued to work hard until her death in 1983. Her gravestone reads, “Migrant Mother: A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”

6Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915)

Susan La Flesche Picotte (Omaha) was the first Native person to graduate from medical school, which she did in 1889 at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. She returned to her tribe in Nebraska and served them as a physician, eventually soliciting enough donations to open the first modern hospital in her county.

7Mary Golda Ross (1908-2008)

Mary Golda Ross (Cherokee) was the first Native engineer. Born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1908, she taught math and science until 1942, when she was hired as a mathematician and later trained as an engineer by Lockheed Corporation. She was the only Native and only woman among the forty engineers of the secret Lockheed Skunk Works think-tank, which was instrumental in space travel. She was also one of the authors of the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III about travel to Mars and Venus.

8Maria Tallchief (1925-2013)

Maria Tallchief (Osage) was America’s first prima ballerina. Born on Osage land in 1925, she moved to New York at 17, where she became the first star of the New York City Ballet, co-founded in 1946 by the legendary George Balanchine, who she eventually married. She is the most prominent of the group of ballerinas sometimes called the Five Moons, after a statue commemorating Oklahoma’s five American Indian prima ballerinas. The others are Maria’s sister Marjorie Tallchief (Osage), Yvonne Chouteau (Shawnee), Moscelyne Larkin (Shawnee-Peoria), and Rosella Hightower (Choctaw).

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