Leadership can entail many things. For Native Americans, caring for their people has meant not only securing food and shelter, or carrying forward spiritual teachings and cultural traditions, or helping to keep the peace internally and with neighbors. Ever since European settlers began arriving in the 16th century, leadership for America’s Indigenous peoples has disproportionately involved fighting to simply exist.
Some American Indian leaders sought to broker treaties. And when that didn’t work, they went to war—to protect their ancestral lands, their hunting grounds and their ways of life. Some gave their lives in the struggle. In later years, leaders have served not only as chiefs but as activists and organizers, calling attention to the ongoing discrimination and oppression of Indigenous peoples. Issues have ranged from broken treaties and tribal sovereignty to voting rights and forced sterilization.
Though nowhere near complete, this list details many influential Native American leaders, both men and women, who made their mark in history.
Powhatan (c. 1547 - c.1618)
First Leader in Contact With the Jamestown Settlers
Best known as Pocahontas’ father, Chief Powhatan (a.k.a. Wahunsenacawh) was the supreme Indigenous leader in the Chesapeake Bay region of Virginia, who built a confederacy of dozens of tribes—through force, marriage and by "adoption." In the early 1600s, Chief Powhatan adopted Englishman John Smith as a wereowance, or leader, of what would eventually become Jamestown Colony. But when relations with the English settlers soured, he ordered his warriors to attack James Fort in 1609, initiating the first Anglo-Powhatan war. That lasted until the marriage of his daughter Pocahontas to English colonist John Rolfe. After she died in 1617, Powhatan ceded his rule to his brothers, Opechancanough and Itoyatan.
Opechancanough (c. 1554-1646)
One of the Canniest Resistance Leaders in Colonial America
Abducted by the Spanish as a youth in 1561 and brought to live in King Phillip II’s court in Madrid, Opechancanough returned nine years later to become a powerful resistance leader against colonial forces. After the Spanish converted him to Catholicism and baptized him under a new name, “Don Luís de Velasco,” they returned him to Virginia to convert his people. Instead, Opechancanough retaliated, killing eight Jesuit priests with an Indian war party, effectively squashing Spanish colonial ambitions in the region. Decades later, he helped coordinate an attack on the Jamestown colony that nearly drove out the English as well, killing approximately 350 settlers, burning houses and slaughtering livestock. Yet the colonists continued arriving, and the leader struck again, killing approximately 500 settlers in the mid-1640s. Reaching nearly 100 years old, he died when a guard shot him in the back.
Coordinated Successful Pueblo Revolt to Drive Out Spanish Oppressors
Born in what would become present-day New Mexico, Po’Pay (translation: “Ripe Squash”) orchestrated the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, successfully driving out Spanish conquistadors who had enslaved local Indigenous people and outlawed their traditions and spiritual practices. After Po’Pay and 46 other leaders were jailed, flogged (and some executed) for “sorcery,” they planned in secret for four years to oust their oppressors. To coordinate the two dozen different Pueblo communities speaking six different languages and spread over 400 miles, Po’Pay devised a communication system involving coded messages in knotted ropes carried by special runners. During the uprising, Pueblo rebels captured horses, cut off water supplies and set fire to Catholic churches, ultimately killing about 400 Spanish and several dozen priests, The revolt succeeded in driving the Spanish from the region for 12 years, allowing Pueblo people to restore threatened traditions.
Col. Louis Cook, a.k.a. Atiatoharongwen (c. 1740-1814)
Highest Ranking Native American Officer in the Revolution
Fluent in French, English and Mohawk—and talented as an opera singer—Cook became renowned as a warrior. As various European colonial forces battled for North American territory, he fought first for the French and then offered his services to General George Washington in 1775, going on to command the Indian Rangers and help defeat the British near Saratoga. His 1779 commission as a lieutenant colonel made him not only the highest-ranking Indigenous officer in the Continental Army, but—because his father was of African descent—the only known Black officer as well.
Rallied Tribes Together Against White Settlers
A staunch opponent to the encroachment of white settlers and a renowned orator, Tecumseh (birth name: “Shooting Star”) worked to unite Indian tribes in the Great Lakes region and beyond to collectively defend Native lands and cultures. As a leader whose father and brother were killed by American forces, he fought many battles against the U.S. military, defeating General Arthur St. Clair’s forces at the Battle of Wabash in 1791. He and his brother Tenskwatawa founded the community of Prophetstown in what is now Indiana, as a base for their confederacy; future president William Henry Harrison led a U.S. force to destroy it in the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe. During the War of 1812, Tecumseh sided with the British in hopes of slowing westward expansion.
John Ross (1790-1866)
Tried to Stop the Trail of Tears
John Ross, principal chief and national council president of the Cherokee, devoted his life to resisting the U.S. government seizure of his people’s land. Born to a Scottish father and Cherokee mother and educated in a white school, he straddled both worlds, helping draft a constitution and start a tribal newspaper. After rival Cherokee leaders signed a fraudulent treaty giving away ancestral homelands, Ross fought Washington for two years against his people’s removal, being imprisoned in the process. President Andrew Jackson refused his petitions, leading to the brutal forced migration known as the Trail of Tears; thousands died, including Ross’ wife. He served as chief of the new United Cherokee Nation for the remainder of his life, continuing to fight for his people’s needs in Washington actively.
Osceola (c. 1804-1838)
Fought to Protect Seminole Florida Homelands
Though not a formal chief, Osceola (“Black Drink Singer”) earned recognition as a prominent military tactician and leader who opposed the Treaty of Payne’s Landing, which sought to remove Seminole from their ancestral Florida lands. Believed to have been born to a Creek mother, Osceola led warriors from his adopted Seminole tribe into the Everglades, where they fought back against the U.S. government and provided refuge for tribal people who didn’t wish to leave, as well as escaped slaves. Eventually, Osceola was captured and imprisoned at Fort Moultrie in South Carolina, where he died in 1838.
Pi'tamaka / Running Eagle (died c. 1878)
Renowned Hunter and Warrior
Growing up, young Pi'tamaka (“Brown Weasel Woman”) preferred the activities of Native males and asked her father to teach her to hunt and fight. On one occasion, she risked her life to rescue him when he fell from his horse during an enemy attack. After he was killed by an enemy war party during a buffalo hunt, she assumed a leadership role, protecting horses from raiders and fighting many battles, including against the Crow. Chief Lone Walker gave her the name Running Eagle, an honor usually given to male warriors. She died in 1878 in a battle with Flathead warriors. Pitamakan Lake in Glacier National Park bears her name.
Manuelito (c. 1818 -1893)
Navajo / Dine’
Navajo Warrior and Resistance Leader
A leader of the Dine’ (Navajo) people, Manuelito led significant resistance to the U.S. government's efforts to relocate them to the arid Bosque Redondo reservation south of Santa Fe, New Mexico. After army troops destroyed tribal homes, crops and livestock, some two-thirds of the Navajo surrendered, undergoing the Long Walk of 1864, a brutal forced march to the reservation. Manuelito and thousands of other Dine’ refused to surrender, withdrawing into the mountains and becoming guerrilla fighters. But after U.S. Army Colonel Kit Carson led the destruction of their food sources, Manuelito surrendered. He eventually traveled to Washington and successfully petitioned for a new Navajo reservation sited on original tribal lands.
Red Cloud (1822-1909)
First Indian in the West to Win a War Against the US
A fearless warrior and raider in his youth, Red Cloud became a formidable opponent to the U.S. military in the Upper Plains—especially after the discovery of gold in Montana accelerated the influx of miners and other migrants, threatening the buffalo population and crucial Lakota hunting grounds. The fierce battles that ensued between Native warriors and the U.S. military in the years directly after the Civil War became known as Red Cloud’s War. In December of 1866, he led the Fetterman Massacre, a surprise attack on U.S. forces that killed more than 80 U.S. soldiers; it was the largest victory for Native Americans in the Plains prior to the Battle of Little Bighorn. After 1870, Red Cloud became a diplomat for his people, visiting Washington, D.C., repeatedly—and twice meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant.
Last Indian Leader to Formally Surrender
A renowned Apache leader and medicine man, Geronimo (birth name: “One Who Yawns”) was the last Native American leader to formally surrender to the U.S. military. He devoted his life to avenging his murdered family and fearlessly fighting all government efforts to herd his people off their ancestral Southwest lands and onto reservations—whether by treaty or military force. A skilled guerrilla warrior, Geronimo led his followers repeatedly to escape San Carlos Reservation. After dodging more than 8,000 soldiers during their final escape, they were caught on September 4, 1886. Geronimo spent his last two decades as a prisoner of war.
Sitting Bull (c.1831-1890)
Defeated Custer at Little Bighorn
One of the most famous Native Americans of the 19th century, Sitting Bull united the Sioux tribes of the Great Plains against white settlers encroaching on their territory. A great warrior chief who joined his first war party at age 14, Sitting Bull fought many battles against the U.S. military in the Great Sioux Wars, culminating with the defeat of General George Armstrong Custer at the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn. In 1885, Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, gaining national renown. But U.S. officials, fearing he might be leading an uprising, sent Indian police to arrest him. He died while resisting.
Queen Lili'uokalani (1838-1917)
First Woman to Rule Hawaii
Lili'uokalani, the first woman to rule Hawaii—and the archipelago’s last monarch—was a gifted musical composer who authored “Aloha Oe,” a national anthem for Hawaii. After succeeding her brother on the throne in 1891, she fought to restore Native Hawaiian sovereignty after white landowners had forced him at gunpoint to cede political power in what came to be known as the Bayonet Constitution. When Lili'uokalani pushed to restore the original Hawaiian constitution, those sugar and pineapple barons, with the help of a U.S. minister and a contingent of Marines, staged a coup, deposing her. For five years, she petitioned President Grover Cleveland and Congress for reinstatement. After a failed rebellion aimed at restoring the monarchy, Lili'uokalani was arrested, and sentenced to five years of hard prison labor. She was pardoned in 1896; the U.S. officially annexed Hawaii as a territory two years later.
Lozen (c. 1840-1889)
Warrior Sometimes Referred to as the Apache Joan of Arc
Victorio, a Chihenne Apache chief, once said of his warrior sister, "Lozen is my right hand…strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy. Lozen is a shield to her people.” Helping lead the fight against European invaders and forced relocation to horrible conditions in the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona, Lozen rode and fought fiercely alongside her brother for decades. After his death, she supported Geronimo in the last campaign of the Apache Wars.
Chief Joseph (1840-1904)
Led His People on a Daring Escape
Hailed as a great war leader during the Nez Perce War of 1877, Chief Joseph (“Thunder Rolling Down From the Mountains”) actually made his mark more as a diplomat and peacemaker. After leading forceful dissent against a dubious U.S. government treaty requiring his Nez Perce band to leave their fertile homelands in the Pacific Northwest, he finally consented to migrate rather than be attacked. But instead of leading his people to their assigned reservation, he guided hundreds on a daring escape toward Canada, outmaneuvering the pursuing troops for more than 1,600 miles, all the while taking care to protect the women, children and elders. Forced to surrender 40 miles from the border, he never stopped fighting for his people’s return to their ancestral lands.
Zitkala-Ša / Red Bird (1876-1938)
Influential Activist for Women’s and Indian Rights
Influential writer, musician and activist Zitkala-Ša (a.k.a. Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) advocated for both women’s suffrage and Indigenous rights. Educated at a Quaker-run Indian boarding school, Earlham College and the New England Conservatory of Music, she published essays in Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Weekly and taught briefly at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, but soon quit to write and agitate. Her works American Indian Stories and Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians described the horrors of Indian boarding schools and recounted U.S. government corruption in running the reservation system. In 1924, in part due to Zitkala-Ša’s efforts, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act. In 1926, she and her husband formed the National Council of American Indians, and she traveled the country advocating for Native suffrage and self-determination.
American Indian Movement (AIM) (1968-present)
Varied tribal affiliations
1960s/70s Activists Who Led High-Profile Protests
In 1968, inspired in part by the civil rights movement, Native American community leaders founded the American Indian Movement (AIM) to bring renewed attention to the a history of oppression faced by Indigenous people, as well as ongoing issues of broken treaties, discrimination, poverty and inadequate housing, healthcare and job opportunities Led by notable activists including Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt and Russell Means, AIM organized or participated in highly publicized protests, including the occupations of Alcatraz Island and Mount Rushmore, a takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and The Longest Walk, where Native American protesters from over 100 Indian communities walked 8,200 miles across the country in protest to a lifetime of injustice. The FBI and CIA targeted the movement, leading to a violent standoff at the community of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973.
WARN: Women of All Red Nations (1974-present)
Varied tribal affiliations
Women-Run Indigenous Activist and Advocacy Organization
Formed in 1974 as a way to supplement the activism of AIM (the American Indian Movement), Women of All Red Nations was the brainchild of women leaders including Lorelei DeCora Means, Madonna Thunder Hawk, Phyllis Young and Janet McCloud. In the 1970s, since many of the (mostly male) leaders from the American Indian Movement had been imprisoned, killed or were under the U.S. government’s surveillance, WARN leaders worked to fill the gaps left behind by AIM. WARN spotlighted issues including racist education, environmental contamination and, in particular, the forced sterilizations of Native women in the 1960s and ’70s. The organization is credited for federal regulations on medical sterilization practices in the United States.
Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010)
First Woman Chief of a Major Tribal Nation
When Wilma Mankiller took on the role of principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985, she became the first woman ever to head a major Native American tribe. Growing up without power or running water, Mankiller later served as the director of the Oakland Native American Youth Center and even collaborated with members of the Black Panther Party. As chief of the Cherokee Nation, she revolutionized Indian policy by using tribal members as contractors. She served for a decade, making strides in areas like decreased infant mortality, higher education achievement and improved community infrastructure. Recognizing her efforts in self-determination, President Bill Clinton awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. In 2022, the U.S. Mint minted a quarter featuring her image.