In celebration of National Native American Heritage Month, we're highlighting a few trail-blazing figures of American Indian history. If you’re one of our readers, you may recognize one of these individuals from Issue 15: A Native Story. The figures below made important contributions to the world of science, art, and language. There are many moments of Indigenous history to explore, and we hope you will be encouraged to learn more.
Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915)
In 1889, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte made history by becoming the first American Indian doctor. Growing up on the Omaha Reservation, La Flesche learned the traditions of the Omaha people, including those of the medicine people and healers. At eight years old, she witnessed women die as they waited for the white agency doctor. The doctor never arrived. This childhood experience motivated La Flesche to begin a career in medicine to help those in need.
After learning English at school, La Flesche went on to pursue further education at the prestigious Hampton Institute in Virginia. She then applied to the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania at a time when there were few female doctors. La Flesche was admitted and graduated a year early, first of her class. She returned to the Omaha Reservation to provide medical care and became the sole doctor for more than 1,200 people. She was known for working at all hours of the day and night.
In 1913, she opened the first hospital on a reservation that was not funded by the government. This hospital later became a museum that memorialized her work and the history of the Omaha and Winnebago Nations. An ongoing project aims to restore the hospital so it can provide medical care once again. Today, La Flesche is remembered for her outstanding life of service as a doctor, healer, leader, and teacher.
Sequoyah (c. 1775-1843)
Born around 1775, this Cherokee polymath would make a lasting impact on American history. Sequoyah grew up in the years following the American Revolution. His father was likely a Virginia fur trader, and his mother, Wuh-teh, was Cherokee of the Paint Clan. Wuh-teh raised her son in Tennessee country where Sequoyah grew up to become a silversmith, blacksmith, painter, and warrior.
As a silversmith, Sequoyah had many interactions with European Americans. Though he never learned English, Sequoyah observed how the English writing system was used to exchange information. He wondered if a written language would empower the Cherokee Nation and began creating a Cherokee syllabary.
By 1821, Sequoyah had invented a system with 86 different symbols. Easy to learn, the syllabary was later adopted by the Cherokee Nation. It enabled the publication of books and newspapers in the Cherokee language. This was during a time when the US government was forcibly removing Native people from their homelands, known today as the Trail of Tears. The syllabary helped preserve the Nation’s language, traditions, and history. Written Cherokee is still taught and used today.
Maria Tallchief (1925-2013)
Maria Tallchief fought to preserve her Indigenous identity in the competitive world of ballet. Born in 1925 as Elizabeth Marie Tallchief, she would become the first American prima ballerina. Tallchief’s father was a member of the Osage Nation, and she spent her early childhood on the Osage Reservation.
As a young girl, Tallchief fell in love with music and dance. At the age of 17, she moved to New York City to pursue a full-time dance career. During those first months, Tallchief met discrimination and rejection from dance companies. She was often encouraged to change her last name to hide her Indigenous ancestry. Tallchief refused and continued to audition using her family name.
In 1942, her career finally took off when she joined Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. She worked with the company for 18 years and became its prima ballerina from 1954 to 1955. After retiring, she founded a ballet school and later became the artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet. Known for her speed and grace, Tallchief would be remembered as one of the greatest ballerinas of the United States.
Want to learn more? Issue 15 features several notable Native leaders, including the fearless Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo. In Issue 6, Young Historians can learn about the Mohawk leader and spy Molly Brant. Check out our podcast Anytime Now as we continue to highlight important figures of American Indian history.