Explore the contributions of Native American women
Courageous women have long shaped America, yet their contributions have often been overlooked. This selection of objects and images from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian collections highlights stories featuring the creativity and determination of Native American women.
Seneca dress (circa 1870)Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
Tradition and resistance in a young nation: Seneca finery
This calico dress, decorated with 216 etched-silver brooches, glass beads, and silk ribbon, belonged to Gagwi ya ta, or Charlotte Sundown (1853–1911), a member of the Beaver Clan of the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians. In the mid-nineteenth century, a treaty signed by the Seneca Nation called for the sale of Tonawanda land in western New York and the adoption of a new form of government. In opposition, Tonawanda seceded from the Seneca Nation.
Born seven years after that separation, Gagwi ya ta steadfastly maintained Seneca dressmaking traditions. This outfit, complete with leggings and beaded slippers, included hide, porcupine quill, and sinew as decorative elements. The abundance of silver brooches on it signifies it was worn on special occasions. Although Gagwi ya ta was not a clan mother, her dress was typical of those worn by clan mothers, who wielded significant authority at Tonawanda council meetings. Gagwi ya ta died in 1911, during a flu epidemic.
Wedding dress worn by Inshata-Theumba (Susette La Flesche or Bright Eyes), Omaha (1881)Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
A marriage of minds: The union of two crusaders for Native rights
When Susette La Flesche (1854–1903), a well-established crusader for Native American causes, married Thomas Tibbles in 1881, she wore this then-fashionable two-piece woolen wedding dress, exquisitely trimmed with silk, satin, and lace.
La Flesche was born Inshata-Theumba (Bright Eyes) on the Omaha Reservation, the same year the United States established both it and the Nebraska Territory. Her father, a respected tribal leader, raised her and her siblings in the Omaha tradition. But he also sent them to the reservation’s mission school, believing that additional exposure to American culture and the English language would be in their best interest. After attending the Elizabeth School for Young Ladies in New Jersey, La Flesche returned to the Omaha Reservation as a teacher.
In 1877, she witnessed the forced removal of the Ponca from their homelands in Nebraska to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), which shook her to her core. The following year she went with her father to Indian Territory to visit the Ponca. Their misery sparked her decision to fight for Indian rights. Her future husband, Tibbles, a reporter for the Omaha Herald, shared her outrage.
When in 1879 the Ponca chief, Standing Bear, was imprisoned for leaving Indian Territory without the permission of the US government, La Flesche joined a campaign to fight for his release, which included a petition arguing for the right of the Ponca to remain in their homeland. According to the New York Herald, the petition was “one of the most extraordinary statements ever published in America.” The trial that ensued led not only to the release of Standing Bear from prison but also to one of the country’s major civil rights decisions—that “an Indian is a person within the meaning of the law of the United States” and has the right to legal redress before the courts.
After the trial, La Flesche continued her activism against the forced removal of Native peoples from their homelands and for Indian civil liberties, including their right to become US citizens.
Karok lidded baskets by Elizabeth Hickox (Karok)Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
Art of bearing witness: Surviving mass genocide, preserving the history of the Wiyot people
On the night of February 26, 1860, off the coast of what is now Eureka, California, the townspeople of Humboldt County murdered approximately two hundred Native American men, women, and children as they slept. A Wiyot woman named Polly Steve was one of the few to survive the racially motivated Indian Island Massacre. Twelve years later, she gave birth to a daughter who would preserve the cultural heritage of her people through baskets like these.
Elizabeth Hickox (1872–1947) was one of the finest American Indian basket makers of her time and remains renowned among collectors of Indigenous art. From her mother, she learned the craft of twining and of decorating baskets with traditional designs using spruce root, bear grass, dyed porcupine quills, and maidenhair fern. Hickox was noted for both her exquisite execution and the innovative shapes of her baskets and lids. Her intricate, elegantly crafted baskets belie not just the horrors of her mother’s history but also the violence against her people.
The Indian Island Massacre was among many incidents in one of the darkest chapters in California and US history: the mass slaughter of American Indians in California between 1848 and 1860. This killing spree has been described as the worst atrocity that Americans have never heard of. With the 1848 discovery of gold in Northern California, hundreds of thousands of immigrants flooded into the region.
No other Indigenous territory in what is now the United States was inundated with Euro-Americans as rapidly. The Wiyots, and other Native Americans who inhabited Northern California, were ill- equipped to cope with the sudden flood of immigrants. An estimated one hundred thousand Native Americans died during the first two years of the gold rush.
Hickox’s mother was left for dead at Indian Island. That she survived and taught her daughter basket weaving, an art form at which Native American women of present-day California excelled, speaks most profoundly to the senselessness of the massacres. Today, the Wiyot people number approximately six hundred. New generations continue working to perpetuate their cultural traditions.
Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa) (1920/1925) by Charles Morgan Wood, 1870-1927Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
Nampeyo revived an ancestral pottery
Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo (1859–1942) was the first Pueblo potter to gain acclaim outside of the American Southwest. She is credited with reviving Sikyatki pottery, a style that previously flourished from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries at Hopi Pueblo’s First Mesa.
Nampeyo and her husband, Lesou, drew inspiration from the unusual designs they saw on shards of broken pottery found near an abandoned ancestral village in northeastern Arizona. In the 1890s, a Smithsonian excavation led by Jesse Walter Fewkes unearthed well-preserved examples of the ceramics.
Hopi-Tewa polychrome jar (1960/1970) by Fannie Nampeyo (Hopi-Tewa)Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
Nampeyo rediscovered and began using the fine Sikyatki clay to produce pots ranging from cream or golden yellow to orange. Bird features—curving beaks, wings, and feathers—figure prominently in her painted designs. The shapes of the pots are also distinctive, including low, wide jars and bowls, sometimes with flattened shoulders or outward flaring lips.
The matriarch of an extended family of potters, Nampeyo kept this artisanal tradition alive, working with her daughters and grandchildren as her husband’s role lessened. Other women of First Mesa followed her lead in resurrecting the style, and new generations have maintained and updated the form by innovating on Nampeyo’s painted designs.
Gladys Tantaquidgeon (Mohegan) and Nanticoke leaders (1922) by Frank G. SpeckSmithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
Mohegan medicine woman: Preserving Native American traditions and beliefs
Gladys Tantaquidgeon (1899–2005) brought an Indigenous worldview to her ethnobotanical research among the Delaware, Nanticoke, Cayuga, and Wampanoag tribes of the East Coast. She published significant works on tribal knowledge and on the use of local natural resources to create traditional herbal medicines, collecting samples, like a medicinal snapwood plant, harvested in Massachusetts during fieldwork in 1929.
Born to Mohegan parents, Tantaquidgeon trained in Indigenous practices with Mohegan knowledge keepers Emma Baker, Mercy Mathews, and Fidelia Fielding. At age twenty, she was invited by respected anthropologist Frank Speck to deepen her studies at the University of Pennsylvania in a traditionally male-dominated discipline. She served as Speck’s field assistant from 1919 to 1933.
Wanting to preserve her tribe’s threatened culture for future generations, in 1931, Tantaquidgeon cofounded the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum in Uncasville, Connecticut—the oldest museum in the United States owned and operated by Native Americans—with her brother and father. When the museum first opened its doors, she famously stated, “You can’t hate someone [who] you know a lot about.”
Committed to bettering the lives of Native peoples, Tantaquidgeon was a community worker on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota in 1934. From 1938 to 1974, she promoted Indian art in the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming for the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board. She also advocated for tribal religious freedom and helped revoke colonial prohibitions surrounding such traditional beliefs and practices as the sun dance and the rain dance.
During the 1970s, Tantaquidgeon returned home to serve as a member of the Mohegan Tribal Council. She was named Tribal Medicine Woman in 1992 and provided critical research in the landmark Mohegan case for federal recognition in 1994. On hearing the Mohegans had been granted tribal sovereignty, Tantaquidgeon replied, “That’s wonderful. Now what do we do next?”
Mounted plant specimenSmithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
This snapwood specimen was one of the medicinal plants collected by pioneering anthropologist Gladys Tantaquidgeon among the Gay Head Wampanoag.
Tribute to the Mohawk Ironworkers (2008)Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
Art rooted in Mohawk history
A social commentary, Carla Hemlock’s Tribute to Mohawk Ironworkers (2008) pays homage to generations of Mohawk construction workers who helped build New York City’s bridges and high-rises, and lost their lives doing so. The quilt was inspired by an iconic 1932 photograph of ironworkers perched on a suspended I-beam—an image that hangs in countless Mohawk homes.
The star on the quilt symbolizes those who have passed. After sixty-five Mohawk men died building the Quebec Bridge in 1907, Mohawk women told their skilled ironworker husbands, brothers, and sons to continue their profession—but never in large numbers on the same site.
Throughout the twentieth century, Mohawk men heeded this counsel, as they helped build and, in the case of the World Trade Center, disassemble New York City’s most famous high-rises. Hemlock’s quilt is a tribute to this ongoing history, steeped in pride and pain.
Native American Women Warriors Color Guard dress (2010) by Mitchelene Big Man (BigMan), Apsáalooke (Crow/Absaroke)/Minitari (Hidatsa)Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
Displaying valor and leadership in the military
In the 2013 presidential inaugural parade, Mitchelene BigMan (Crow/Hidatsa) wore this jingle dress (powwow dress) with military patches representing her status as a Native American woman, US Army veteran, and founding president of Native American Women Warriors.
Rebecca Head Trautmann
Excerpts from Smithsonian American Women: Remarkable Objects and Stories of Strength, Ingenuity, and Vision from the National Collection, Victoria Pope and Christine Schrum, eds. Smithsonian Books, Washington, DC, 2019.