5 Amazing Indigenous Women To Celebrate Instead Of Christopher Columbus

by Dawn Day

Today marks 526 years since Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” and landed in North America. For more than 80 years, the United States has recognized the second Monday of October in celebration of Columbus, a man who brought disease, slaughter, genocide, and patriarchy with him from Europe to the indigenous people of North America. The United States honors this holiday each year, and while the Presidential Proclamation acknowledges the mass devastation that Columbus’ arrival meant for the indigenous people of North America, it also says that the explorer’s legacy is “in the spirit of our Nation.” If a spirit of racism and lack of understanding for different cultures is what the President means, then that is spot on. 

Many cities, including Berkeley, Seattle and Portland, have renamed Christopher Columbus Day as “Indigenous Peoples Day.” Why not take it one step further, and honor a prominent woman whose culture was displaced by an invasion that is hundreds of years old, yet has devastating cultural stipulations that are still prominent today? Our country does not do an effective job of honoring women through symbols, which results in a society where female movers and shakers are not given the same historical relevance, and therefore women have less political efficacy as a whole. 

One of the greatest historical travesties is the lack of recognition and record of prominent figures from the indigenous North American people—especially women. In school, everyone learns about Christopher Columbus’ voyage, but few are fortunate enough to learn the history behind the Native American tribes that inhabited the land we stand on today. Women who originally inhabited North America have a rich history where they were respected and given equal stake in leading their tribes. The matriarchal organization of many tribes even inspired early feminist leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Since the contributions of indigenous women deserve to be recognized, here are five from the past and present who should own the second Monday in October, instead of Columbus: 

1. Anacaona 


Anacaona, while from Yaguana (now Leogane, Haiti), had an encounter with Christopher Columbus back in 1496 when she and her brother negotiated with the explorer. She became the chief of Jaragua when her brother passed away, and eventually was hanged by Spainish settlers who she had been friendly with, Denise Oliver Velez, a cultural anthropologist, writes for the Daily Kos. “I open one of my women’s studies classes each year with her story. Sadly, few students have ever heard of her. And yet we all get our heads filled with the mythology of Columbus and ‘Indians,'” Oliver Velez writes. It was early that invading parties to the Americas ripped women out of power, and proceeded to dominate the land using brute force. 

 2. Sacagawea


If there is one woman that you would think white men would be willing to celebrate, it would be Sacagawea. After all, she did lead two of them on the famous Corps of Discovery expedition to reach the Pacific Ocean. Guiding Lewis and Clark while caring for a newborn is seriously impressive. Shoshone-born Sacagawea was kidnapped around age 11 by the Hidatsas tribe, where she would become a wife and mother. Of all Native American women, Sacagawea is one of the most well-known, appearing on the gold coin issued first in 2000. According to the Sacagawea Historical Society, information about Sacagawea is limited (as is the case with most historical Native Americans), and most of the facts about her life come from the journals of Lewis and Clark. 

3. Wilma Mankiller


Wilma Mankiller was the first woman elected chief of the Cherokee nation. Her contributions to improve the plight of the Cherokee Nation were significant, and included developing better water and housing conditions, increasing the tribe’s enrollment by three-fold, and providing needed leadership for financial and political issues. Mankiller passed away in 2010 at age 64, but her legacy lives on. She was a woman who was not afraid to follow her passion for social justice all the way to becoming a key leader of her community. 

4. Charlene Teters


Charlene Teters is a Spokane tribal member whose activism has taken the shape of art. With the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media, she fights to banish mascots that are discriminatory toward Native Americans. Revered as the “Rosa Parks of the American Indian Movement,” she is known for picketing sports events at the University of Illinois where the mascot was an American Indian. Teters’ story is told in the documentary In Whose Honor? by Jay Rosenstein. Her art and activism should be recognized and known by all, especially in a nation where there is still so much work to be done to change the image of Native Americans.

5. Winona LaDuke


Leading efforts to honor and support Native environmental issues and create sustainable Native communities through her organization Honor the Earth, Winona LaDuke has proved herself to be a leader to listen to. She is of the Anishinaabe nation from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, and has twice been a Green Party vice presidential candidate. Recently, she’s been active in the movement protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. She told Democracy Now that Trump’s memorandum reviving the Dakota Access Pipeline is “pretty much a declaration of war against us all out here, not just against Native people, but against anybody who wants to drink.”

It is time for women to get more historical representation.

Who would you like to see celebrated? Any of these amazing women would be better than Columbus. Let’s make a change. 

This post was published October 12, 2015

Photo credits: Facebook/Wilma Mankiller, Amazon, Flickr/Norland Cruz, CharleneTeters.com, Facebook/Winona LaDuke Honor The Earth

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