For thousands of years, Native Americans have been in the land that’s now known as the United States of America. And yet, their history is still new to most Americans.
In fact, the first presidential proclamation recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day—which this year is Oct. 9—only came two years ago, issued by President Joe Biden in 2021. In the last decade, schools and businesses have increasingly recognized the day as a holiday for employees and students as an alternative to Columbus Day, given the explorer’s checkered human-rights record.
TIME asked 11 experts on indigenous history which Native American historymakers readers should know about. Their responses have been lightly edited.
Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte
In 1889, Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte graduated top of her class from the Women’s Medical
College of Pennsylvania and became the first Native American to earn a medical degree.
The following year, she returned home to her nation, the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, where she
became the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) sole physician. La Flesche Picotte had always planned to return home; she pursued medicine out of concern for her fellow Umóⁿhoⁿs (Omahas). The settler invasion of Umóⁿhoⁿ lands in the 1850s and 1860s had led to outbreaks of infectious diseases like measles and tuberculosis. Believing that these Euro-American diseases required Euro-American knowledge to prevent and treat, La Flesche Picotte sought to utilize Western medicine to heal her community.
La Flesche Picotte initially supported disastrous federal assimilation policies like land allotment, or the dissolution of tribally-held lands into individual parcels of privately-owned property. This position put her at odds with many contemporaries who defended Native sovereignty and would prove inconsistent with her health advocacy work. Years of working as an intermediary and health advocate for the Umóⁿhoⁿ community would change her mind about assimilation. La Flesche Picotte increasingly blamed the BIA—and white settlers—for the worsening health crisis among the Umóⁿhoⁿs. Furious with the BIA’s lack of investment in healthcare, she raised private funds and opened her own hospital in 1913. La Flesche Picotte struggled with poor health for most of her life and died two years later at the age of 50. The hospital still stands; it is a testament to La Flesche Picotte’s unwavering dedication to the health of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska.
—Juliet Larkin-Gilmore, assistant professor of History, Health Humanities, and Race and Ethnic Studies at Pennsylvania State University, Abington College
Susette La Flesche Tibbles
Susette La Flesche wanted to be a teacher. The daughter of Omaha chief Joseph La Flesche, she studied in New Jersey and was published in the New York Tribune before coming home in 1875 to apply to teach on the Omaha reservation in Nebraska. The local Indian agent, however, refused her application because she was not white. La Flesche began her long career of advocacy by advocating for herself until she secured the teaching job.
A few years later, the Omaha World-Herald hired La Flesche to translate Ponca accounts of their violent, forced deportation. Working closely with journalist Thomas Tibbles—whom she would later marry—La Flesche advocated on behalf of Ponca chief Standing Bear in his legal battle for the right to return home to bury his son. Her translation of his moving courtroom speeches led to the landmark 1879 U.S. Supreme Court case Standing Bear v. Crook, which established Native Americans’ right to recognition as persons under the law. Writing as Bright Eyes (the English translation of her Omaha name Inshuta Theumba), she agitated for justice for Native Nations. “I am the only Indian speaking to the public through the press for the Indians,” she wrote from Pine Ridge as she covered the immediate aftermath of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre.
Knowing the power of public opinion to disrupt injustice, La Flesche used speaking tours across the United States and Europe and columns in Nebraska newspapers to fight for the rights of Native people, farmers, and other marginalized communities.
—Lindsay Stallones Marshall, an assistant professor of History at Illinois State University
Rachel Caroline Eaton
In 1919, Rachel Caroline Eaton became the first known Native American woman to get a PhD, at a time when few women—let alone Native American women—had opportunities for graduate education.
Eaton was a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and she dedicated her life to researching and educating people about the history of her people. Along with her tireless efforts in activism and education, her first book, John Ross and The Cherokee Indians (1914), brought public attention to the Trail of Tears, the genocide and forced removal of her Nation from their land.
Because Cherokee society was matrilineal rather than patriarchal, Eaton received an early education from family matriarchs and from the Cherokee Nation public school system. Eaton’s grandmother, a survivor of the Trail of Tears, passed on to her the importance of telling histories to future generations. Eaton spent much of her life teaching in various schools and colleges, including the Cherokee Female Seminary, which she herself had graduated from in 1888. In the 1920s and 1930s, Eaton was a prominent figure in Native women’s club organizing. Due to racism in academia, Eaton’s later publications were limited, but her impact on Cherokee education endures.
—Patricia Dawson, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and assistant professor of History at Mount Holyoke College
Vine Deloria, Jr.
Vine Deloria Jr.’s life encapsulates many of the important issues that were besetting indigenous communities in the 20th century. For example, he was part of federal relocation in the 1950s and 60s, which forced people off the reservation to urban centers. He became the president of the National Congress of American Indians in 1964, and it was during his tenure as the director that membership in tribal nations skyrocketed.
But he is best-known for writing a bestselling book called Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) that not only captured the anger of native peoples at the time, but also humanized native peoples for non-native audiences. He was explaining to non-native people what treaties were and why they were important; it was really a primer for non-native public that explained everything going on in Indian country for literally centuries.
Read More: Why We’ve Gotten ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ Wrong for Nearly 150 Years
Custer Died for Your Sins helped lay the groundwork for legislation like the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975, which is the first statement by the federal government that these treaties exist, and that there’s a nation-to-nation relationship between us. [Tribes] are sovereign entities that live within the United States and that have their rights as political nations and can negotiate those with the United States.
—Bryan Rindfleisch, associate professor of History at Marquette University
Ada Deer—who recently passed away on Aug. 15 at the age of 88—was born on the Menominee Nation, and by the time she was in her early 20s, the nation no longer existed. It no longer was a sovereign nation with the government-to-government relationship with the United States. It had been federal Indian policy to terminate tribes, and they succeeded in a number of cases around the country. Deer was one of the native people who went to D.C. and got the tribe reinstated in 1973. After the tribe was restored, she became the first chairperson of the Menominee Nation. She lobbied until President Richard Nixon reversed the entire federal policy of termination in 1973.
In 1993, Deer became the first woman to run the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For most of the agency’s existence, it approached Native nations, like, “Here’s what’s best for you.” It was very paternalistic. And starting under Deer, the agency’s position toward Native nations became, “How can we help you become more independent? How can we help uphold treaty rights? How can we help grow native communities?”
Her life debunked a bunch of myths—one of the most potent being that we’re all, if not literally dead, effectively so. By example, she showed that not only are we not gone, but we remain potent, powerful, effective, brilliant people who are as focused on the future as we are on the past.
—David Treuer is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota and a professor of English at the University of Southern California
Po’Pay: An unfamiliar word to most people, but to the Indigenous peoples of the state currently known as New Mexico, we know that word as the Tewa name of a man who was born nearly 400 years ago at Ohkay Owingeh. During that time, our homelands were invaded by Spain and the Catholic Church. Our ways of being were persecuted by a nation and church that deemed themselves superior to us.
Then in 1680, Po’Pay led what many characterize as the first successful revolt of an oppressive regime in what would later become known as the United States. Our pueblo ancestors drove the Spanish out of our homelands. Because of the significance of his leadership to who we are today, we honor him with annual commemorations of the revolt, and a statue in the U.S. Capitol. Carved by Cliff Fragua of Jemez Pueblo, it is the first statue in the U.S. National Statuary Hall Collection that was created by an American Indian.
Many of us honor him with the work we do today as educators. In my research and writing, I show others the ways that Native peoples are misrepresented in children’s and young adult books, and I tell them about Native writers who write outstanding books that accurately reflect who Native people were, and who we are, today. My mother, Oyegi (her Tewa name), is also from Ohkay Owingeh. My father is from Nambé Owingeh. We—the Pueblo Peoples—are proud descendants of Po’Pay and we carry his spirit forth in our work.
–Debbie Reese, an enrolled member of Nambé Owingeh tribe and co-author of ‘An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, for Young People’
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard dedicated her life to the protection of the water. In 2016, she was the Tribal Historic Preservation Office officer for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and alerted people to the impending plans for construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. She was a founder of the Sacred Stone camp at Standing Rock, opening up her homelands for people to come and help to support the Standing Rock and oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline Project and protest corporate greed. People from all over the world came to North Dakota in support of that mission. It was one of the largest gatherings of indigenous people in decades, since the 1970s.
Allard was a symbol of the strength of Indigenous women. Indigenous people continue to spend their lives protecting the earth and ensuring the future of our people.
—Jennifer Nez Denetdale, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and a professor and chair of American Studies at the University of New Mexico
Paya Mataha was an 18th century Chickasaw diplomat who used peacemaking to keep his people together as a nation in a time of dangerous rivals, including European empires and the new United States.
As a young man growing up in what is now Tennessee, Paya Mataha was a successful warrior. He fought in the Chickasaw wars that usually paired the Chickasaws and their British allies on one side and the powerful alliance of the Choctaws and the French on the other. Yet as he grew older, Paya Mataha came to see peacemaking as his life’s work. His big opportunity came when France lost the Seven Years’ War and surrendered its North American colonies to Britain and Spain in 1763. As the Chickasaws’ chief diplomat, Paya Mataha made a lasting peace with the Choctaws and with other Native nations, and he made a new alliance with the Spanish. When the American Revolution came, the British expected their Chickasaw allies to help them fight the rebelling colonists and the Spanish. But Paya Mataha believed that peace was better for his nation than war. He used his diplomatic skills to preserve the Chickasaw alliance with the British while keeping the Chickasaws out of the war. After the Revolution, he forged a U.S. alliance. Through all of his peacemaking, Paya Mataha’s goal was to protect the Chickasaws as a sovereign nation. The Chickasaw Nation exists today because of the efforts of people like Paya Mataha.
—Kathleen DuVal, professor of History at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Attakullakulla was one of the most influential peace chiefs shaped in the 18th century. He lived through very trying times for the Cherokees. There’s continued encroachment of European settlers into Cherokee lands, and difficulties maintaining levels of crop output to feed the population, and a number of smallpox epidemics that devastated Cherokee communities.
In 1730, he was one of seven Cherokee emissaries who was part of diplomatic efforts to secure a covenant of peace and friendship with the British. That agreement aimed to secure free trade between the Cherokees and the British in North America. In the 1730s and 1740s, Attakullakulla engaged in inter-indigenous diplomacy with non-Cherokee native peoples throughout the south, the Ohio Valley and around the Great Lakes. He’s variously described by the British as a rascal, deceitful, and troublesome—all terms which in truth reflected his skill as a diplomat and negotiator. He was no pushover.
His skilled diplomacy helped Cherokees adapt their cultural folkways while also providing access to coveted trade goods. Attakullakulla’s diplomatic skills helped Overhill Cherokees solidify their position of political influence and maintain their standard of living as colonialism pressed on both Cherokees and Creek communities.
—Gregory D. Smithers, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University
The Ojibwe have a population of about 200,000 people, and we live in the Great Lakes of the U.S. and Canada. My own nation is Red Lake in northern Minnesota. We are unusual in the history of the United States because we held on to 800,000 acres of land and water when the reservation system was established, and still hold our land in common. That is, we never divided our land into individual allotments as the U.S. insisted on for nearly every reservation across Indian Country.
No one was more skeptical of the motives of the United States government than the Ojibwe’s respected hereditary chief, Medwe-ganoonind, also known as “He That Is Spoken To.” He opposed the Treaty of 1863 in which we relinquished thousands of acres of fertile agricultural lands and bison range in the Red River Valley. By the time we made another agreement to establish the borders of the reservation in 1889, he was the head of the seven clan leaders, and was over 80 years of age.
He That Is Spoken To was from my hometown of Redby, on the south side of lower Red Lake. He was a diplomat for our people and traveled with Ojibwe delegations to Washington. For that effort he received an American flag with 38 stars. He weathered a difficult era, and we regard him as a visionary who adamantly opposed the allotment of the reservation.
—Brenda J. Child is Red Lake Ojibwe and a professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts
Roger Jourdain became the first elected tribal chairman for Red Lake reservation in 1958, serving for 32 years. He had to overcome tremendous adversity; growing up, he was sent to residential boarding school in southern Minnesota and ran away twice.
White agents ran reservations from the middle of the 1800s until 1934, so most tribes had to go through a rebuilding process, and Roger Jordain was part of that. When he came into office, a lot of people were still living in wigwams. During his tenure as chairman at Red Lake, the life expectancy for residents increased by 20 years. He got phone service, electricity, and ambulance service to all of the houses on the reservation.
He understood that native people needed to impact American politics to have true sovereignty. When Coya Knutson, the first democratically elected woman in Congress in Minnesota, voted for the termination of the sovereign status of Native American tribes across the country, Jordain pulled his support, campaigned against her, and she lost the next election. Ignore or disregard the tribal vote at your own risk: Roger Jordain was the first Native politician who understood that.
Red Lake today has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the U.S. at about 99%. In Joe Biden’s election in 2020, the Democratic voting parts of Arizona were conterminous with the Native American reservations there and around Phoenix. If Biden didn’t have a message that was compelling to tribes, he never would have won.
—Anton Treuer, a descendent of Leech Lake and a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University