Native women have always been leaders. In North America Native women historically held equal status to men and held decision making power. This was a balanced worldview that had been in place among many tribes, for millennia.
But, when colonization ushered in patriarchal views of women in society, the voices of Indigenous women were stifled. The great and mighty male Chief became the tokenized symbol of leadership in Native society to mirror the ideals of white society.
Sadly, the effects have been playing out in the form of extreme violence against our women and girls ever since.
Now, Indigenous women are coming back unto their own.
There are countless Indigenous women that are changing lives all around the globe. To celebrate a fraction of their achievements, we’re featuring 10 of them.
Unfortunately, Indigenous Peoples have not always been celebrated in the media. It’s usually stereotypical coverage- the drunk, the dancers and drum, the drug addicts or the tribal heroines fighting a noble cause.
Thankfully, that narrative is shifting for the better and broader portrayal of Indigenous peoples and culture.
Here are 10 Indigenous women who are not historical characters or Indian princesses dreamed up by mainstream society. They’re everyday shero’s who are admirable, strong, resilient, and shredding the status quo in a remarkable way.
If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing yourself as a CEO, leader at the United Nations, doctor, professional athlete or activist then take note of these Indigenous trailblazers for some inspiration.
First Nations, Ontario, Canada
CEO Cheekbone Beauty
Cheekbone Beauty founder and CEO Jenn Harper, a proud Anishinaabe wife, mother and entrepreneur is making waves in the cosmetics industry.
Harper describes the moment that Cheekbone Beauty became more than just an idea on her website blog. She was filling out a questionnaire during a training session for a marketing company where she worked,
“The questionnaire asked: “What is your dream job?” I wrote, ‘To be the CEO of a major cosmetic brand.’ At the time, there was no indication that I would eventually set out to build Cheekbone Beauty. Still gives me goosebumps!”
Harper is passionate about closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children’s education. She currently donates 10 percent of company profits to the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society in Canada which helps with children’s education.
Some of her next goals are to expand Cheekbone to a global audience, create sustainable packaging and organic, pesticide-free makeup.
Skatin and Sts'ailes First Nations, British Columbia, Canada
Top MMIWG advocate
Lorelei Williams, a member of the Skatin and Sts’ailes First Nations who lives in Vancouver, B.C. is a passionate advocate for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Williams’ Aunt Belinda Williams went missing 41 years ago and her cousin Tanya Holyk was murdered by infamous serial killer Robert Pickton. These tragic losses prompted Williams to become one of the leading female Indigenous voices in Canada for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and girls. She founded Butterflies in Spirit, an interpretive dance group that travels internationally to raise awarenes.
She also volunteers for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Collation. Advocating for women is an everyday activity for Williams who works full-time as the women’s coordinator at the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Center.
Donna May Kimmaliardjuk
Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, Canada
Canada’s First Inuk Heart Surgeon
At only 30-years-old, Donna May Kimmaliardjuk is Canada’s first Inuk heart surgeon. She is from Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, and her inspiration to become a doctor came when she learned at age 6 that her paternal grandfather died from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
Kimmaliardjuk grew up in Ottawa and excelled in school, eventually attending Queen’s University to become a surgeon. In 2018 she won the Indspire Award for Inuit Youth and is now leading the way for other Inuit to pursue a medical career.
“Harness inspiration to shape your dreams,” she told Indspire. “Pursue education to bring your dreams into focus. Use your dedication, passion, and the support of others to bring your dreams within reach.”
Anishinaabe-kwe, Ontario, Canada
Autumn Peltier, 14, Anishinaabe-kwe of the Wikwemikong First Nation in northern Ontario, Canada is an internationally recognized water advocate that has been named a ‘water warrior’. She works to raise awareness to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the United Nations about hundreds of unsafe drinking water issues of First Nations people.
Peltier encourages youth around the world to protect Mother Earth and sacred, living water to ensure humanity’s survival. For three years in a row, Peltier has been nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize.
“One day I will be an ancestor and I want my great-grandchildren to know I tried hard to fight so that they can have clean drinking water,” she told the UN Assembly in 2018. “We all have a right to this water as we need it. Not just rich people, all people. No one should have to worry if the water’s clean or if they’ll run out of water.”
Rep. Deb Haaland
Albuquerque, New Mexico
One of the first Native American Women elected to Congress
Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, from Albuquerque, New Mexico is a single mother, marathon runner, lawyer and member of Congress for New Mexico.
She is one of the first two Native American women who made history when elected to U.S. Congress in 2018. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk Nation, was also elected to Congress along with Rep. Haaland.
Haaland is passionate about affordable health-care, the environment, advancing Indigenous rights and advocating for Indigenous women victims of violence.
“When a young woman of color sees me in the speaker’s chair, I want them to think ‘I can do that,’ that’s part of why I’m here,” said Haaland in a March 2019 Instagram post.
“I want to help those who have never been represented before to identify with me and identify with Congress. It’s their Congress too- it belongs to all of us.”
Shoshone-Paiute, Duck Valley Indian Reservation, Idaho
Lemieux is the only female Native American professional golfer in the United States and this 21-year-old athlete has her sights set on the LPGA Tour.
Lemieux took an interest in golf at the age of 6 and grew up to be a 5A State Champion in Idaho, a 4-time winner and Big 12 Player of the Year at Texas Tech while holding the number one ranking in the country. She is currently developing her talent competing on the Symetra Tour and hopes to inspire other Native American youth to get into sports.
In April, Lemieux began working with Moya Strategic Solutions to reach out to her peers through education and sports. “Native American education is an issue in many of our Native communities and I want to be a change agent in this area,” she told Campus Live of the endeavor.
Dine’ New Mexico, U.S.A.
Gonzales founded the first Native American led birth organization to support Native American mothers to have access to cultural and health services during pregnancy and birth.
The Changing Women Initiative, a non-profit organization in Santa Fe, New Mexico was conceived after Gonzales noticed a lack of understanding around Native women’s health in the mainstream medical system. The organization is the only one of its kind so far in the United States.
Its mission is to renew cultural birth knowledge, promote reproductive wellness, healing through holistic approaches and to strengthen women’s bonds to family and community. Gonzales works to decolonize Indigenous women’s birth experiences and help lower the high rates of Indigenous women birth mortality in the United States.
Top Indigenous rights and environmental leader
Born in a small Amazon rainforest village in Brazil in 1974, Guajajara grew up to become one of the country’s top Indigenous leaders.
She is the coordinator of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil and a passionate advocate for Indigenous rights and the planet. Her fearless activism has garnered worldwide attention. “My mission is to make the larger society see the huge potential of Indigenous People to help preserve life,” she recently told Believe Earth.
“And how our way of life naturally acts as a barrier against chaos. The world needs us badly because the way we live and act can avert this wave of disaster and destruction that is approaching.”
Cobble Cobble, Barrungam Nation, Queensland, Australia
First Australian Indigenous person to be elected to a UN body
An Aboriginal rights activist and human rights lawyer, Davies was raised by a single mother and became obsessed with the United Nations at age 12. Now, she is considered one of the most influential human rights lawyers in the world and helped to draft the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Since being elected by the UN Human Rights Council to the UN’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2017, Davies advocates for states to implement the UNDRIP.
She is also a professor at the University of New South Wales and said to UNSW in 2018 the following powerful message:
“I’ve always felt very strongly about the way in which the law has oppressed Aboriginal and Torres Strait people, but also its capacity to redeem, to make things better. My research has contributed to these dialogues rolled out across the country and Aboriginal People being able to exercise some degree of self-determination in regard to imagining how their world could be different than what it is now.”
Top advocate for women with disabilities and Indigenous women
Gurung became disabled when she lost her hand in a truck accident at age 7 and she experienced discrimination because of her disability, which prompted her to become an advocate. Now, she’s the leading activist for the rights of Indigenous Peoples and women in Nepal and Asia.
To Gurung, climate change places another burden upon disabled Indigenous women and she urges tangible actions to be taken by governments to protect already vulnerable women and children.
“Most disabled peoples’ organization, Indigenous Peoples’ organization and state mechanisms in my country don’t cater to the specific needs and unique realities of Indigenous women with disabilities,” she told the UN Women organization.
“Empowering [Indigenous women with disabilities] means that we must be at the table making decisions about the issues that affect us.”
Brandi Morin is an award-winning journalist from the Michel First Nation in Alberta, CA. For the last 10 years, Morin has specialized in telling Indigenous stories. Her most notable work has brought her to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network National News, the National Observer, CBC Indigenous and the New York Times.