When you think about Native Americans, who or what first comes to mind?
Off the top of my head here are a few names and places that I would have said several years ago: Pocahontas, Sitting Bull, the Battle of Little Bighorn. Oh, and Geronimo. But only because it’s what we used to scream right before jumping into the pool. That or kowabunga.
For years I had no idea what Geronimo meant nor that it was the name of a real person, a true hero. And let me tell you, I wasn’t the only kid who was shouting that at the top of my lungs before jumping into the pool. So what gives? How and why do all these names ring a bell, and yet if you’d asked me who these people are I wouldn’t have been able to tell you?
American Indian history simply isn’t taught in U.S. public schools. Natives are mentioned only if and when they are significantly involved in something major such as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, WWI or WWII. In my experience, the most in depth a teacher has ever gone into American Indian history was to talk about the Trail of Tears, but then it was right back on to learning about manifest destiny and the pioneers who settled in the west. I don’t blame people for not knowing the names of famous American Indians. So for my first Indigenous Peoples’ Week post, I’m going to give you a quick rundown of five of the most famous names and who they were.
- Sitting Bull (1831-1897)
Sitting Bull’s real name was Tatanka-Iyotanka which roughly translates to a buffalo sitting up on its back legs. He was a Lakota chief who spent the majority of his life defending his people against the Americans who were rapidly expanding into the west. He was an especially skilled and brave warrior and was made chief of the Lakota nation in 1868.
“Sitting Bull’s defense of his land was rooted both in the history of his culture and in the fate he believed awaited his people. At a Sun Dance ceremony on the Little Bighorn River, where a large community of Native Americans had established a village, Sitting Bull danced for 36 consecutive hours, slashed his arms as a sign of sacrifice, and deprived himself of drinking water. At the end of this spiritual ceremony he informed villagers that he had received a vision in which the American army was defeated.”
One of his most famous battles was against General Custer in 1876, known as the Battle of Little Bighorn. Sitting Bull and his warriors successfully defeated the Americans, but the tribe retreated north for several years out of fear that they had now provoked the U.S. by embarrassing them in battle. Sitting Bull is also known for his friendship with Annie Oakley, whom he participated in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show with for several years. He grew unhappy of the traveling and the performances and returned to the Dakotas some years later. However, he was still seen as a threat to the U.S. and in December 1890 he was arrested and killed.
- William Alchesay (1853-1928)
A Whitemountain Apache Chief, William Alchesay was an Apache Scout who served under General George Crook and he received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his service.
“Alchesay was often called on by the Indian agents of the Fort Apache Indian reservation when problems pertaining to the White Mountain Apache tribe occurred, because his opinion and counsel were well respected by both native and non-native peoples. Throughout his life he maintained an active interest in the well-being of his people, often speaking about the living conditions and needs of his people to the United States Government.”
“As a leader, Alchesay sought better conditions for his people in Washington, D.C. In 1887 he traveled to the Capital to speak to President Grover Cleveland. He met with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, and with Warren G. Harding in 1921. When the military left Fort Apache and Theodore Roosevelt Indian Boarding School was built in 1923 for Navajo children, Alchesay traveled to Navajo county to welcome Navajo children to the White Mountain reservation. He was instrumental in getting federal compensation for the families that were removed because of the school.”
- Crazy Horse (1849-1877)
Crazy Horse was an Oglala Sioux chief who was well-known not just for his bravery in battles (such as the Battle of Little Bighorn) but his fierce desire to protect his people and their traditional ways. One example of this was the fact that he was adamant about not wanting himself or his people to be photographed.
“Even as a young man, Crazy Horse was a legendary warrior. He stole horses from the Crow Indians before he was thirteen, and led his first war party before turning twenty. Crazy Horse fought in the 1865-68 war led by the Oglala chief Red Cloud against American settlers in Wyoming, and played a key role in destroying William J. Fetterman’s brigade at Fort Phil Kearny in 1867.”
Both Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull fought in the Battle of Little Bighorn, but Crazy Horse did not retreat to Canada as Sitting Bull did. He held his ground to protect his land despite constant military harassment. When he left the reservation in 1877 with his wife, he was pursued and arrested under the assumption that he was planning to battle again, and he was killed by the soldiers who arrested him.
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- Tecumseh (1768-1813)
Tecumseh is translated to “panther crossing the sky”. Tecumseh was given this name because right at the moment of his birth, a comet shot across the night sky and it was determined that the boy would be destined for greatness. He did in fact become a prominent Shawnee political leader, warrior and humanitarian.
“Tecumseh’s political leadership, oratory, humanitarianism, and personal bravery attracted the attention of friends and foes. He was much admired by both the British and the Americans. After his death (his body was never recovered), a considerable mythology developed about him, and he has become an American folk hero.”
This article in particular offers even more information about Tecumseh’s life.
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5. Geronimo (1809-1929)
Geronimo is one of the most prominent Chiricahua Apache leaders and was the last stronghold to surrender to American soldiers in 1886. He had a deep hatred for Mexicans that began when Mexican troops attacked his camp while he was away and killed his mother, wife, and three young children. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, new restrictions were placed on the Chiricahua Apache as to where they were and were not allowed to live.
“The initial reservation established for the Chiricahua Apaches in 1872 included at least a portion of their homeland. The Chiricahuas were unhappy with the prospect of any reservation life, but their dismay turned to anger when they were evicted from this reserve and forcibly gathered with other Apache groups on the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona in the mid-1870s. Geronimo bitterly resented the move, and he especially disliked San Carlos. For the next decade he and his followers repeatedly broke out from what they saw as imprisonment. Once clear of San Carlos, they were difficult to locate and bring back, for they knew well the country of southern Arizona and northern Mexico. Time after time, Geronimo sought a more unfettered existence, despite the best efforts of the U.S. Army.
Geronimo’s repeated escapes embarrassed and provoked politicians, army officers, and the non-Indian populace of the Southwest. His very name brought terror to the people who continually heard of his evading capture and occasionally killing Anglo-Americans and Mexicans. Territorial newspaper headlines blared his name, time and again.”
He was the embodiment of Apache values, courage and bravery and is by far one of the most legendary and respected leaders.
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And there you have it! Just a few of the most famous names in American Indian history. So next time you go to do a cannonball into the pool and you shout Geronimo, you’ll know who that is 😉
More to come this week as my official un-official Indigenous Peoples’ Week continues – thanks for reading!