Native American Women in History


Selu, Cherokee “first woman” and corn goddess


On the Passing of Mary Brave Bird (“Crow Dog”)

By April Weller Cantrell

On February 18, 2013, my husband, Mark, came to the doorway of our family room and told me he had just read that Mary Brave Bird (Crow Dog) had passed from this life on to her next journey. I was filled with disbelief and thought it must be a horrible rumor. I began to search the Internet and could find nothing. Finally, I sent an instant message to Mark’s cousin, since she lives on Rosebud. She quickly responded, confirming that it was true. Since that day I have searched daily for any tribute, obituary listing and any thing that may memorialize the death of someone who I saw as an inspiration.

As a child I can remember watching news clips on television about the American Indian Movement (AIM) and their struggles during the 70s. It made impressions on me that I would only come to fully realize as I grew older. In the early ’90s I read a book called Lakota Woman, a memoir of the life of Mary (Brave Bird) Crow Dog. When they made a movie about Mary called Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee (based on the book) I watched it. I was completely moved by Mary’s bravery and determination to make a difference for Native Americans. In the mid 90s I was presented with an opportunity to assist in collecting coats, clothing, food and other needed items to be delivered to the Indian Reservations in South and North Dakota. Initially, I thought I was only assisting in gathering these items, but it was meant for me to travel with a small group to deliver them.

Country music artist Ricky Lynn Gregg, months before, had played a show near the Rosebud Reservation. His discovery of the deplorable living conditions by the majority of Lakota people living on the Rosebud gave him the idea to begin with a blanket drive. With moderate success, he along with Billy Barrett and a few others were encouraged to do something more. Ricky, leading the way of what would become known as the Trail of Hope, gathered a group of individuals and business owners to assist in collecting relief items for the Lakota people. With several Semi trucks and trailers and one Prevost bus we headed on our journey, zigzagging our way across the country to Indian Reservations in South Dakota and the southern part of North Dakota.

The trip was filled with many learning experiences for me; however, when we arrived at the Rose Bud Reservation we were presented with the opportunity to meet Mary Brave Bird Crow Dog. Because I had read her book and seen the movie that I found very inspiring, I was elated to have the opportunity to meet her. Prior to that day, she was famous to me. She was not famous in the way most would consider someone famous, but she was famous to me because, as a woman with strong Indian ancestry, she had worked hard to forward Indian rights and women’s rights and to bring to light the traditions of her people. The Trail of Hope trip was being documented with a film crew and while Mary was being interviewed I sat and listened to every word with tears streaming down my face. She was a heroine. She didn’t have a cape flowing in the wind on her back and she wasn’t perfect. She was a Lakota woman, a daughter, single mother, and wife (at times), with her own daily struggles. She battled inner demons, she worked to provide for her family and she fought to make a difference for her tribe and all Native Americans. She inspired me to be a better woman. She gave me an understanding that we can all do something to make a difference even amidst our imperfections.

Fifteen years after her memoir Lakota Woman, Mary released another book entitle Ohitika Woman. It detailed her life experiences up to 1992 and continued to share ancient myths and traditions of the Lakota people and added detail to what was written in her earlier book.

From the early 70s Mary spent her life as a woman warrior. In 1972 at the age of 16 she joined the American Indian Movement (AIM) and participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties march on Washington D.C. that lead to protesters occupying the Bureau of Indian Affairs building. During this time Mary met Leonard Crow Dog, a Lakota medicine man and they married the following year. In February 1973 at the behest of traditional Lakota leaders, AIM leaders and other Native Americans, including Mary and Crow Dog, took a stand at Wounded Knee; a place where in 1890 the U.S. cavalry massacred hundreds. Wounded Knee, located on the Pine Ridge Reservation, was suffering at the hands of a corrupt leader named Richard “Dickey” Wilson, the “elected” tribal chairman. The siege lasted 71 days and gave this country a window to see some of the treachery occurring. The AIM movement assisted in giving Native communities strength through hope and perseverance. Mary felt the organization gave her life purpose without which she lived in hopelessness. It didn’t take away the reality of poverty, despair, alcoholism, domestic violence or joblessness on the reservations; however, it did provide hope of a better day.

Mary inspired me to be an Indian activist. I am grateful for the times I have had the opportunity to do what I could to forward awareness. I have spent the last 20+ years trying to be more like her, being an Indian activist against grave desecration, gang problems on the reservations and other issues Native Americans face, and educating the general public who are for the most part oblivious to Native Americans having any issues.

As I sit here today I know there is more to do, and that I also get caught in my own personal struggles and lay down the fight sometimes, but that’s okay because we all have a path to walk and we can pick up the fight to help our brothers and sisters again. When I returned to Tennessee from the Trail of Hope trip, I wrote Mary a letter telling her how moved I was to have met her. I have never seen or spoken with her since. I hope she received the letter but if she didn’t I hope she passed onto her next journey knowing what an inspiration she was to many and what an inspiration she will be to future generations. My prayers go to her and all those who knew and loved Mary Brave Bird (Crow Dog).

Selu – The First Woman

Depiction of Selu – Cherokee “First Woman” and Corn Mother

Cherokee creation stories teach that the first woman was Selu. She was created from the first corn plant to remedy the bad behavior of the first man, Kanati, caused by his loneliness and boredom. When she died, as a result of the bad behavior of her children, she used her blood to make sure they would always have plenty of corn to eat.

The Legend of the First Woman

As Told by Mary Ulmer Chiltoskey

For a time the man was very happy on earth. He roamed around and ate the fruits and berries and he visited the animals and he saw all his homeland. There was much to learn and the earth was beautiful. But before long the man grew discontented and he became very unhappy. He didn’t know what this disease was, bit it was a disease that we still have. He was bored.

When he got bored, he used his mind and his strength differently. he shot arrows at the deer without really needing to. He picked the plants and didn’t use them. He tore up the animals’ dens just to see if he could do it. And soon the animals became concerned about the new creature.

The animals called a council meeting to try to determine what to do. They said they thought this creature was supposed to have respect for other creatures, that he was given a mind. A little insect said, “Wait, you haven’t thought this out. The Great One made him; let’s ask him what to do.” This seemed to be a good idea. They called to the Great One to help them with the new “superior” creature.

The owl said, “You told us the man has a mind and he is to respect us.”

The deer said, “I don’t want to be disrespectful, but you told us the man would need more of us deer than any other animal. If he keeps killing us like he is now, very soon he won’t have any deer left.”

“Oh,” said the Great One, “thank you, thank you. I had not thought about something I left out in this man.”

The bear said, “Look at him right now. He’s lying out in the sun with his face up. No animal will sleep right out in the open. We all know to go into a private, guarded place to rest.”

The Great One said, “Yes, there is something missing because I was in such a hurry to make him. But I know what is missing.”

“Stand back,” he said. He made a green plant to grow up tall. The plant grew up right over the man’s heart, up toward Galunlati. It was a plant with long, graceful leaves and then an ear and a golden tassel. Above the tall plant was a woman, a beautiful, tall, brown woman growing from the stalk of strong corn.

The man woke up and thought he was dreaming. He rubbed his eyes and said, “This is not true. In a minute I’ll wake up and be just as bored as I was before. Oh, I am so lonely.”

The Great One sort of kicked him in the behind. “Get up you lazy thing,” the Great One said. “Be a man for your lady” Now no one had any reason to think this man was a mannerly individual. Recently he had certainly not been acting like a real gentleman. But we don’t have to be taught manners: We need someone to expect the best from us and we use the manners the Great One has already given us. So the man got up, brushed himself off, and gallantly offered his hand to the woman who came down from the stalk of corn.

The woman said, “No, wait a minute.” The man didn’t argue or huff. He just waited as she asked. She reached up and pulled two good ears of corn to take with her. Then she said, “I’m ready.” Do you know why she wanted the corn? She couldn’t have known yet that the corn would be an important food. She just knew that she had sprung from the corn and she needed to take something of her heritage with her.

The Great One remembered that although each man will sometimes need to be alone, each man will also need companionship to be his best.

Over a period of time, the man and the woman built a home where they kept the corn for planting. The next spring she planted her corn and it grew into a beautiful plant. It was probably the next year that she noticed a large bird who became sacred to the Cherokee because they could watch what he ate, and they would then know it was safe to eat.

One morning the woman noticed the turkey eating the tender corn. She knew then the corn was food and it was time to eat the corn. That evening she set a pottery pot of corn in the middle of her cook fire. She covered the pot with a curve of chestnut bark. When the man came in to eat his fish stew, she didn’t tell him what she had cooked. She just pulled an ear of corn from the pot and pealed it back so he could smell it. he thought it was the best aroma he had ever smelled and he began to eat the first corn of the spring.

Note: Cherokee women now never tell their men when they will serve the first corn of the season. They believe if they say it, bad luck will happen. One year not long ago, Aunt Mary’s husband overheard her tell a visitor when they would have the first corn of the season. Before the corn was good and ripe, wild hogs ate nearly all of it!

Kanati and Selu

Kanati, Selu, and the Two Thunders / By AlessiaHV

As Told by Wahnenauhi (Lucy Lowery Hoyt Keys)

A man and a woman reared a large family of children in comfort and plenty, with very little trouble about providing food for them. Every morning the father went forth and very soon returned bringing with him a deer, a turkey, or some other animal or fowl. At the same time the mother went out and soon returned with a large basket filled with ears of corn which she shelled and pounded in a mortar, thus making meal for bread.

When the children grew up, seeing with what apparent food was provided for them, they talked to each other about it, wondering that they never saw such things as their parents brought in. At last one proposed to watch when their parents went out and to follow them.

Accordingly next morning the plan was carried out. Those who followed the father saw him stop a short distance from the cabin and turn over a large stone that appeared to be carelessly leaned against another. On looking closely they saw an entrance to a large cave, and in it were many different kinds of animals and birds, such as their father had sometimes brought in for food. The man standing at the entrance called a deer, which was lying at some distance back of some other animals. It rose immediately as it heard the call and came close to him. He picked it up, closed the mouth of the cave, and returned, not once seeming to suspect what his sons had done.

When the old man was fairly out of sight , his sons, rejoicing how they had outwitted him, left their hiding place and went to the cave, saying they would show the old folks that they, too, could bring in something. They moved the stone away, though it was very heavy and they were obliged to use all their united strength. When the cave was opened, the animals, instead of waiting to be picked up, all made a rush for the entrance, and leaping past the the frightened and bewildered boys, scattered in all directions and disappeared in the wilderness, while the guilty offenders could do nothing but gaze in stupified amazement as they saw them escape. There were animals of all kinds, large and small – buffalo, deer, elk, antelope, raccoons, and squirrels; even catamounts and panthers, wolves and foxes, and many others, all fleeing together. At the same time birds of every kind were seen emerging from the opening, all in the same wild confusion as the quadrupeds – turkeys, geese, swans, ducks, quails, eagles, hawks, and owls.

Those who followed the mother saw her enter a small cabin, which they had never seen before, and close the door. The culprits found a small crack through which they could peer. They saw the woman place a basket on the ground and standing over it shake herself vigorously, jumping up and down, when lo and behold! large ears of corn began to fall in the basket. When it was well filled she took it up and, placing it on her head, came out, fastened the door, and prepared their breakfast as usual. When the meal had been finished in silence the man spoke to his children, telling them that he was aware of what they had done; that now he must die and they would be obliged to provide for themselves. He made bows and arrows for them, then sent them to hunt for the animals which they had turned loose.

Then the mother told them that as they had found out her secret she could do nothing more for them; that she would die, and they must drag her body around over the ground; that wherever her body was dragged corn would come up. Of this they were to make their bread. She told them that they must always save some for seed and plant every year.

The Lady of Cofitachequi

By Toye E. Heape

Cofitachequi was a  province of Muskogean-speaking Indian people located in what is now South Carolina in the area bordered by the Santee, Wateree, and Pee Dee rivers.  Spanish slavers searching the southeastern Atlantic coast for Indian slaves learned of it from the people they encountered and captured. An Indian man enslaved by the Spaniards told them of an area ruled by a powerful chief. His description contained many elements of Mississippian culture, including earthen mounds.

In 1539 Hernando De Soto’s army landed on the Gulf Coast of Florida and began an assault on the southeastern Indians, looking for riches to plunder. During their march through Florida they captured a young Indian boy they called Perico. He was a trader from a town in the chiefdom of Cofitachequi. He told the Spaniards that Cofitachequi was ruled by a female chief who collected tribute from the towns in the chiefdom, and they sometimes paid in gold. Perico convinced them that the riches they were seeking would be found there and that he could lead them to it. DeSoto made plans for the army to head to Cofitachequi.

The Lady of Cofitachequi Gives De Soto the Town’s “Treasure” / Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In the spring of 1540, De Soto plundered his way from Florida, through the area we now call Georgia, and on to Cofitachequi. On May 1 the army arrived at one of the major towns of Cofitachequi, located on the Wateree River, now known as the Mulberry site. They met a delegation of the ruling class and, with Perico acting as interpreter, De Soto told them that he came in peace and wanted to meet the chief.

A short time later a woman the army’s chroniclers called The Lady of Cofitachequi arrived, carried on a litter covered with a white cloth. They described her as extremely beautiful. Perico told De Soto this woman was the niece of the female paramount chief of Cofitachequi, and she had come to the town to deal with some of the principal men who were refusing to pay tribute. Perico may have been trying to protect The Lady by telling the Spaniards she wasn’t the chief, but several of DeSoto’s chroniclers considered her to be the paramount chief. She welcomed De Soto and presented him with gifts of animal skins, cloth, and freshwater pearls. She then set aside half of the town for the use of the army and gave them food, including turkey and venison.

De Soto then asked about the precious metals and gem stones he had been told could be found at Cofitachequi. The Lady commanded the people of the town to bring all they had. They brought freshwater pearls, copper, and sheets of mica. This disappointed the army – they expected to find gold and silver. Then the Spaniards began looting the mortuary temples where the bodies of the dead were kept stored in wooden caskets, taking more than 200 pounds of freshwater pearls.

When they had taken everything of value they could find, they had the Lady of Cofitachequi lead them to her town, Talimeco, about four miles away. Again, they looted the mortuary places of everything they wanted. The army needed food to take along on their march, and they wanted corn, but Cofitachequi had been depopulated by disease 2 years earlier (probably brought by earlier European slavers and explorers), so the Indians didn’t  have a large supply on hand. De Soto sent out parties from the army to find all the corn they could carry.

The People Of Chicaza, In Present Day Mississippi, Put Up Armed Resistance To De Soto’s Pillage / Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

De Soto stayed in Cofitachequi for 12 days, the army eating most of the food in the province. By this time the people of Cofitachequi had had enough of the Spaniards and were threatening to take action against them. De Soto took the Lady of Cofitachequi hostage. He decided to make his way to a province called Coosa, which he had heard was very rich and might have an adequate supply of corn. The army headed for Coosa, taking along the Lady, along with a contingent of her attendants, as hostage and guide.

Coosa lay to the west of Cofitachequi, but instead of leading De Soto on the direct route the Lady led the army to the northwest,  toward the mountains and the province of Chalaque, hoping to get them lost. In the mountains, saying she had to go relieve herself, she took one of her female slaves and escaped, carrying away a chest of valuable pearls. She made her way back to one of the border towns of Cofitachequi, and De Soto never saw her again.

Coosaponakeesa (Mary Musgrove)

By Toye E. Heape

Coosaponakeesa was born in 1700 in Coweta, in the Lower Creek Nation, near what is now Macon, Georgia. Her mother belonged to the Wind Clan and was the sister of the chief mico of the Lower Creek (known as Old Brim to the English). Her father may have been an English trader. When she was ten years old she was sent to Charles Town, South Carolina and stayed with an English family. There she went to school, learned to speak English, was baptized, and given the English name of Mary.

Coosaponakeesa returned to Coweta in 1715. This was a time of great unrest in the area. Many Indian tribes were upset over abusive trading practices, and the Yamasee went to war against the British Carolina settlements in 1714. In 1716 peace was restored, but the British wanted to make sure the Creeks remained their allies, and held talks with the tribe to work out satisfactory agreements. During one of these talks Colonel John  Musgrove visited Coweta to establish a border treaty between the Creeks and the Carolina settlements. His son John accompanied him on this visit. John and Coosaponakeesa were married as part of the treaty negotiations. They lived with the Creeks until 1725, then moved back to Charles Town.

Several years later the Creeks invited the British to build a trading post in Creek territory, and requested that it be run by an Indian. The British chose Coosaponakeesa and her husband John Musgrove. In 1730 they moved to Yamacraw, a village founded by Coosaponakeesa’s relative Tomo-chi-chi in 1725. Tomo-chi-chi had provided land north of Yamacraw on the Altamaha River for the trading post. He also gave Coosaponakeesa 500 acres of land on which to build her house, making it clear that the land was hers (British law at the time prohibited women from owning property). This 500 acres eventually grew into the city of Savannah, Georgia.

Coosaponakeesa spoke Muskogean (Creek), English, and the Mobilian trade language. She acted as interpreter for Tomo-chi-chi in any talks with the English. In early 1733 James Oglethorpe arrived at Yamacraw and began discussions with the Creeks that led to the establishment of a colony there, to be settled by debtors from England. Coosaponakeesa acted as interpreter in these discussions, which led to the establishment of the British colony of Georgia. During the colony’s early years, her plantation was one of it’s main food suppliers.

In 1734 Oglethorpe planned a trip to England and invited Tomo-chi-chi and a delegation of Creeks to go along. Coosaponakeesa was to go as interpreter, but her parents fell ill before the ship sailed, and John Musgrove went in her place.

After his return from England in 1735 Tomo-chi-chi ordered the construction of a school near Savannah where Creek children would be taught to read and write English. Coosaponakeesa, who had taught Tomo-chi-chi’s nephew Toonahowie to read and write, helped teach in the school. But her husband John died later that year, and she had to run their trading post, Mount Venture.

Coosaponakeesa married her second husband, Jacob Matthews, in 1737. She became wealthy and influential among the Creeks and Georgians. When the Georgia colony produced it’s first silk in 1739, it was sent to England to be woven into cloth. One bolt was sent to the British queen, another was sent to Coosaponakeesa. Britain and Spain went to war in the same year, and the Creeks sided with the British, due in large part to Coosaponakeesa’s influence. She supplied the British with money, gunpowder, and weapons. The British won the war.

The Creeks had given Coosaponakeesa thousands of acres of land along the Savannah River and, Sapelo, Ossabaw, and St. Catherine’s islands off the Georgia coast. But Britain refused to recognize her land holdings. Coosaponakeesa was Creek, but her husband was a British subject. Under British law individuals could not accept land grants from Indians, and women couldn’t own property.

The Creeks considered the British position towards Coosaponakeesa’s lands as an insult to Creek sovereignty. The land was reserved for the Creeks in the treatys that allowed the formation of the Georgia colony, and since Coosaponakeesa was Creek they had every right to grant it to her. Jacob Matthews died in 1745 and Coosaponakeesa married Thomas Bosomworth in 1747. When Bosomworth assisted her in pressing her claims to the land, he was accused of treason by Georgia, aggravating the situation even more.

In 1749 Coosaponakeesa and Bosomworth led a group of Creeks, including Malatchi, then chief mico of the tribe, in a protest march on Savannah. Coosaponakeesa and Bosomworth were arrested, but they were later released after apologizing to Savannah officials. They then traveled to England and presented her claim to the British Board of Trade. Eventually a compromise was reached in 1759 in which Sapelo and Ossabaw islands would be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to Coosaponakeesa, and she would get title to St. Catherine’s Island from the British Crown “in consideration of services rendered by her to the province of Georgia”.

Coosaponakeesa had spent more than 20 years trying to get the British government, to which she had provided so much invaluable aid, to recognize her claim to land that had been given to her by her people, the Creek Nation, which had also been an ally of critical importance to the British. She settled on St. Catherine’s in 1760. When Coosaponakeesa died 5 years later, St. Catherine’s Island was inherited by her British husband, in accordance with British law.

Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte

Susan LaFlesche was the daughter of Omaha chief Joseph LaFlesche (Iron Eyes). She was born in 1865 on the Omaha reservation in Nebraska and attended school there until she was 14. She then attended the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey for three years, worked at the Mission School on the Omaha Reservation for two years, and then went to school in Virginia for two years. The Women’s National Indian Association then provided financial aid for Susan to attend the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. She graduated at the top of her class and became the first Native American woman physician.

Dr. LaFlesche returned to the Omaha Reservation and worked as the physician for the government school. Widespread cholera, dysentery, and influenza were some of the diseases Dr. LaFlesche had to treat on the reservation.

In 1894 Dr. LaFlesche married Henry Picotte. She left her job at the government school on the reservation and moved to Bancroft, Nebraska where she started a private practice treating Native and non-Native patients.

After her husband died in 1905, Dr. Picotte moved to the community of Walthill, which is near the middle of the Omaha reservation in Thurston County, Nebraska. She helped found the Thurston County Medical Association and became the county health officer and a member of the State Medical Association. She lobbied for better public health laws and worked to fight alcoholism on the Omaha reservation.

Dr. Picotte also went on the lecture circuit in the United States and Europe with her sister Suzette to inform the public about the problems faced by Indian people. She pointed out that the Omaha’s economy was destroyed by the slaughter of the buffalo, and she believed this was the root of many of the Omaha’s problems. She also campaigned against the trust system, in which tribal property was held in trust by the federal government, because she believed it was detrimental to Indian self determination.

In 1912 Dr. Picotte established a hospital in Walthill. The hospital was named in her honor after she died in 1915. The building now houses the Susan LaFlesche Picotte Center, which commemorates her life and work.

Mary Ulmer Chiltoskey and Wahnenauhi (Lucy Lowery Hoyt Keys)

Mary Ulmer Chiltoskey, storyteller of “The Legend of the First Woman”, is a widely known and respected storyteller who has lived with the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina for 6 decades. In addition to Aunt Mary, A Tell Me Story, she is also the author of Cherokee Words With Pictures, co-author of Cherokee Plants: Their Uses – A 400 Year History, and publisher, with her husband Going Back Chiltoskey ( a renowned Cherokee wood-carver) of Cherokee Cooklore – To Make My Bread. She taught history and was a librarian in the Cherokee schools, and has been active in all phases of the Cherokee community. In 1989 she was named an honorary member of the Eastern Band for her many years of service to the Cherokee people.

Wahnenauhi, or Lucy Lowery Hoyt Keys, lived in Oklahoma during the 1800’s. She was a member of what Cherokee author Jack Frederick Kilpatrick termed the “planter class of mixed bloods–wealthy, educated, and receptive to all the Victorian attitudes of the corresponding stratum in Southern White society.” This was a time when Wahnenauhi’s social class vigorously promoted Cherokee acculturation into white society, and most traditional culture went underground. In spite of this prevailing attitude among her peers, she wrote a manuscript on Cherokee history and customs that was published in 1889 in the Bureau of American Ethnology’s 196th Report. James Mooney made extensive use of Wahnenauhi’s manuscript in preparing Myths, History, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees, an important source of information on traditional Cherokee culture.

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