12 Important Native American Leaders

While our Founding Fathers, American Leaders, and military commanders are recognized as heroes of American culture, the contributions that Native people made to many of the most significant events in the nation’s history are sometimes forgotten. This is a list of twelve Native Americans who had an enduring impact through their leadership, bravery, and innovative contributions:


Powhatan, who was also known by his given name of Wahunsenacawh, is likely best remembered as the father of Pocahontas, a woman (who was also known as Matoaka) famous for her part in the English colonial settlement at Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600s. Pocahontas was also known for her role in the resistance against the English colonists. He was also a very strong chief at the time, with his authority stretching over thirty different tribes and over fifteen thousand people who spoke Algonquian in the coastal Virginia region. Powhatan’s early support to the immigrants gave way to open conflict as they competed for dominance over the land, despite the fact that their ties were mainly amicable by the time he passed away in 1618. Powhatan’s relationship with the newcomers was complicated.


As was the case with Powhatan, very little is known about Tamanend’s life outside of the interactions he had with English settlers in the 17th century, particularly the 1682 or 1683 Treaty of Shackamaxon, which was allegedly forged between his Lenni-Lenape Native Americans and William Penn in what is now the city of Philadelphia. But, the wisdom and charity displayed by the “Affable One” persisted for decades, and in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, colonists celebrated him as the “Patron Saint of America.” This was due to the fact that his actions had lasted for generations. The legendary chief was also responsible for the establishment of a large number of social organizations that were named after him, one of which being the infamous “Tammany Hall” organization, which dominated the politics of New York City for more than 150 years.


Joseph Brant

Joseph Brant was exposed to the culture of the colonists at a young age and went on to fight for the British in the French and Indian War, convert to Christianity, and work as a missionary among the Iroquois people. However, the warrior and scholar who was also known as Thayendanegea remained steadfastly loyal to his Mohawk roots, and he was successful in convincing four of the six Iroquois nations to fight on the side of the British Empire during the American Revolution. He believed that the British Empire offered a greater degree of protection. In the region around New York, Brant participated in numerous important clashes and earned the title of captain as a result of his valorous service. Yet, in the wake of these conflicts, he faced a never-ending uphill battle as he attempted to negotiate peace and prosperity for his people.

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Sequoyah was a silversmith and an artist who was also known as George Gist or Guess. He is regarded as having made the most significant contribution to indigenous culture through the development of the Cherokee syllabary. It is said that his labor, which was refined over the course of a period of twelve years, resulted in the collection of 85 symbols that matched the sounds of his indigenous language. But, it became more widespread once it was formally adopted by the Cherokee Nation in the year 1825. This was made possible by the creation of the bilingual Cherokee Phoenix newspaper as well as Sequoyah’s attempts to encourage widespread literacy. His syllabary is still used today, and his name continues to be honored by the towering old trees that can be found across the Pacific Northwest.


Tecumseh, the son of a Shawnee chief, rose to prominence as one of the most admired leaders of his era as a result of his unwavering opposition to the incursion of American settlers. The full extent of his power was on display in the early 1800s when he collaborated with his brother Tenskwatawa to establish the Prophetstown settlement in Indiana Territory and garnered significant support for a pan-Indian alliance. During this time, he was also able to bring together a large number of people to form an alliance. Although General William Tecumseh Sherman revived his namesake’s memory with his own military successes during and after the Civil War, William Henry Harrison co-opted the chief’s legacy for his run for the White House in 1840, despite the fact that Harrison’s forces destroyed Prophetstown and eventually killed Tecumseh. Harrison ran on the legacy of the chief during his campaign.


Sacagawea was a Native American from the Lemhi Shoshone tribe. She had been kidnapped by a rival tribe and later found herself married to a French Canadian trapper. Sacagawea came into the public eye when she joined the Lewis and Clark expedition in April of 1805. She brought her infant son with her. The adolescent mother’s contributions to the accomplishment of the expedition included working as a translator for discussions with the Shoshones, having knowledge of plants and geographical landmarks, and suffering illness and the weather until she returned to her home in South Dakota in August of 1806. According to one account, Sacagawea eventually retreated into the shadows and passed away less than a decade later. Yet, according to an alternate account, she eventually returned to her people and lived to reach nearly 100 years old.

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Red Cloud

Red Cloud, a prominent Oglala Lakota chief from the Great Plains region, honed his fighting skills through early skirmishes with the Pawnee and Crow tribes, before turning his focus to overreaching white settlers in the second half of the 19th century. Red Cloud is credited with helping to establish the Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. He was the spark that started what would become known as Red Cloud’s War, which culminated in a resounding triumph over American soldiers at the Fetterman Massacre in December of 1866. However, after signing the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, Red Cloud essentially abandoned the call to warfare. This was the case even after the United States overran territorial limits the next decade; instead, Red Cloud spent his final years working toward gains through peaceful methods.

Sitting Bull

Although Sitting Bull fought alongside Red Cloud in the 1860s, he eventually became estranged from the latter due to Red Cloud’s unwillingness to bind the Hunkpapa Lakotas to the provisions of a treaty. Sitting Bull fought alongside Red Cloud in the 1860s. As a consequence of this, he emerged as a pivotal figure during the Great Sioux War of 1876, with his anticipation of a military victory predicting the historic loss of General George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. After surrendering in 1881, Sitting Bull momentarily capitalized on his popularity by becoming a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Nevertheless, he was unable to entirely overcome his renegade tendencies and was shot and died when resisting arrest at the Standing Rock Reservation in 1890.

Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse was a significant figure at the Fetterman Massacre and led the charge during the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He is frequently cited in the same breath as Red Cloud and Sitting Bull. Nonetheless, the Oglala Lakota warrior stands on his own as a figure of mythological proportions due to the fact that he refused to be photographed when he was alive despite the fact that his legendary fighting skill is well known. His own life was cut short when he was slain shortly after surrendering in 1877 for attempting to aid his ailing wife with her parents, but the magnificent monument that is being built in his honor in South Dakota ensures that his legacy will live on for generations to come.


Geronimo, a Chiricahua Apache shaman, spent a significant portion of his life fending off Mexicans, Americans, and other Apache tribes that vied with one another for dominance of what is now the state of Arizona and the state of New Mexico. His reputation was boosted by supposed magical skills, such as the ability to slow down time and halt flying bullets, which contributed to his overall success in those activities. In September of 1886, it took the combined efforts of 5,000 United States soldiers, which represented one-quarter of the Army at the time, and another 3,000 Mexican soldiers to coerce Geronimo and his followers out of hiding. As a result, he was the last Native American leader to turn himself into the military.

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Chief Joseph

Chief Joseph is noted for making a tremendous attempt to guide his Nez Perce Native People out of harm’s path in order to avoid being famous for protecting their territories, in contrast to his contemporaries who became famous for defending their territory. The withdrawal took place after his tribe of 700 people had been forced to flee their land in the Wallowa Valley as a result of a bloody conflict that occurred after they had resisted relocation efforts to a tiny reservation in Idaho for several years. They were so close to making it to safety in Canada despite the pressure that was being placed by 2,000 American forces, but Joseph gave a famous speech of capitulation in October of 1877. Despite the fact that he acquired the admiration of American military authorities, the “Red Napoleon’s” goal of being permitted to return to the Northwest was never realized.

Wilma Mankiller

The story of the struggle for the survival of Native Americans continues much beyond the forced relocations and acts of violence that occurred in the 19th century, and the latter chapters of this story are replete with accounts similar to those of Wilma Mankiller. In 1985, Mankiller became the first woman to be appointed as Chief of the Cherokee Nation. During her decade in that role, she is credited with nearly doubling the size of the Cherokee tribe as well as the amount of money it brings in. Mankiller was also a pioneer in the fields of health and education. She also contributed to the establishment of the federal Office of Tribal Justice, wrote two books, and taught at Dartmouth College. In 1998, the President of the United States awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her lifelong devotion to activism.

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