March is Women’s History Month and, to honor the occasion, we’d like to create a space for all the women history forgot. For the women who deserve a place in our textbooks. For the women whose voices should echo. This piece — just one in a series — is for them.
Anyone who follows the No DAPL movement realizes Native women make history. Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer — a 13-year-old member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe — wrote the petition that began the movement and provided its slogan: “Mni wiconi” (Water is Life). Native women of all ages continue to keep the movement going.
Native women have always served as leaders, healers, artists, and anything else they wanted to be — but you wouldn’t know it from reading most history textbooks. Pocahontas and Sacajawea are usually there, though their lives are generally boiled down to the part they played in saving white men. Sometimes Northern Paiute activist Sarah Winnemuca Hopkins or Wilma Mankiller (former chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) will make it in. A friend in California reports that her kindergartener even learned about Tongva-Gabrieliño revolutionary Toypurina at school this year.
While it would be impossible to list all the Native women who have made history, we want to provide a sampling — to make up for what history classes lack.
Zitkala-sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) (Yankton Sioux) was a writer and activist who used her work to promote respect for Native religion and culture, as well as civil rights. She worked with Winnebago artist Angel DeCora early in her writing career, and her books and stories brought attention to Native issues. An accomplished musician, she was also the first Native person to compose an opera, Sun Dance Opera.
2Buffalo Calf Road Woman (1850s? – 1879)
Buffalo Calf Road Woman (Northern Cheyenne) saved her brother, Chief Comes in Sight, at the Battle of Rosebud, rallying the Cheyenne to defeat Gen. George Crook and his troops. In 2005, after a 100-year silence on the battle, Cheyenne storytellers revealed that she also struck the blow that knocked Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer off his horse just before his death at the Battle of Little Bighorn (aka “Custer’s Last Stand”) — the most successful battle waged by Native warriors against U.S. troops in the West.
3Lyda Conley (1869 – 1946)
Lyda Conley (Wyandot) was one of the first female Native attorneys. Along with her sisters Sarah, Helena, and Ida, she worked to protect and preserve the Huron Cemetery in Kansas City. She and her sisters set up a shack on the grounds of the cemetery, armed with muskets, to prevent the sale of the land.
Eventually, Lyda appeared before the Supreme Court as plaintiff-attorney in the first case to argue that Native burial grounds are entitled to federal protection. Her case was dismissed; but nevertheless, she persisted. In 1916, the cemetery was designated a federal park, and in the 1990s, the cemetery (where Lyda is buried) was renamed the Wyandot National Burial Ground and designated a National Historic Landmark.