Honored on postage stamps, historic American Indian leaders exemplify a wide range of reactions to the radical confrontations that would drastically affect the traditions and culture of their peoples. Let’s dig deeper into their stories.Less
To commemorate Native American History Month, the National Postal Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian share stamps and artifacts representing Native American leaders pivotal to the history of this continent. Facing unimaginable forces, some chose resistance and war; others chose a path of adaptation and accommodation to a new way of life. These leaders of nations were elder representatives of huge extended families, and their commitment to future generations was paramount.
Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan (Wahunsenacawh), powerful chief of 30 confederated tribes of Algonquian people of the Virginia Tidewater region. In the early 1600s she became a respected intermediary between her nation and the English colonists. Pocahontas was "the instrument to preserve this colonie from death, famine, and utter confusion," according to John Smith. She married tobacco grower and exporter John Rolfe and died at age 22 while returning from a diplomatic mission to England.
Sacagawea, focused on reuniting with her birth family at her ancestral Shoshone home, led the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition 1000 miles over the major portion of its trek across the Rocky Mountains, down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. Hardy, resourceful and keenly aware of her indigenous geography, her presence served not only to calm the potential for war with tribal nations along the way, but to secure the lives of her non-Native companions in negotiations for supplies and safety.
Sequoyah, a skilled silversmith without formal education, understood the importance of the written words of non-Native settlers and set out to devise a method of writing using 85 symbols to represent all the vowel and consonant sounds that formed the Cherokee language. Sequoyah’s syllabary was completed around 1821 and brought written literacy to the Cherokee people. The Cherokee Phoenix, made possible through the innovation of the syllabary, became the first American Indian newspaper in 1828.
A flood of American settlers was moving west over the Plains by 1866. Red Cloud fought a war to keep the wagon trains from trespassing on Oglala lands and destroying the buffalo herds, forcing the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which was to guarantee the Lakota possession of their lands forever. But that proved far from true, as we will see at our next stop.
The US broke the Fort Laramie Treaty and Red Cloud’s people were forced onto the Pine Ridge Reservation. Red Cloud now envisioned that the route to survival and prosperity for his people was education. He petitioned Washington, DC for a mission school where the Lakota youth would be equipped to walk equally in both the Lakota and white man’s worlds. A school continues in Pine Ridge as the Red Cloud Indian School, enhanced today by other educational institutions such as the Oglala Lakota College.
Tireless in his passion to thwart American military efforts intent on the confinement of the Lakota to reservations, the name Teshunke Witko remains a symbol of national pride and resistance among the Sioux people. A superb military tactician in his own right, Crazy Horse played a major role in the defeat of General George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. “My lands,” he said, “are where my people lie buried,” and “One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk.”
Tatanka Iyotaka, or a large bull buffalo at rest, remained resistant to takeover until his death, and was to be the last chief to surrender his rifle. Like Crazy Horse, he served as a combined military, spiritual and political leader, standing firm against land intrusion by those who would talk peace and not guarantee it. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn against General Custer, his spiritual vision of victory was powerful enough to inspire his warriors to succeed.
When famine forced Sitting Bull finally to deliver himself and his band into the hands of the United States Army, he still refused to sell his land. Today, once again inspired by the visionary hope of their leader, Sitting Bull College has as its motto that of the great Hunkpapa leader: “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.” Sitting Bull’s family and their teepee in 1891.
Hollow Horn Bear fought for his treaty rights at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. A well-recognized speaker for his people, representing them at treaty negotiations, he was a steadfast negotiator for peace in the face of overwhelming force. “You talk to us very sweet, but you do not mean it. You have not fulfilled any of the old treaties,” he said. He was also chosen to represent his people in negotiations with General George Crook at Rosebud Agency, South Dakota.