The Native American Heroes Who've Made History

Activists, writers and war heroes make this list

The Native American experience is not just characterized by tragedy but by the actions of the indigenous heroes who've made history. These trailblazers include writers, activists, war heroes and Olympians, such as Jim Thorpe.

A century after his athletic prowess made worldwide headlines, Thorpe is still considered to be one of the greatest athletes of all time. Other Native American heroes include the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II who helped develop a code that Japanese intelligence experts could not crack. The Navajo's efforts helped the United States triumph in WWII given that the Japanese had broken every other code created by the U.S. government before then.

Decades after the war, activists in the American Indian Movement let the public know that Native Americans wanted to hold the federal government responsible for their grave sins against indigenous peoples. AIM also put programs in place, some of which still exist today, to meet the healthcare and educational needs of Native Americans.

In addition to activists, Native American authors and actors have helped to change popular misperceptions about indigenous peoples, using their masterful creativity to showcase the full depth of American Indians and their heritage.

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Jim Thorpe Memorial
Jim Thorpe Memorial in Pennsylvania. Doug Kerr/Flickr.com

Imagine an athlete with enough prowess to not only play one or two sports professionally but three. That was Jim Thorpe, an American Indian of Pottowatomie and Sac and Fox heritage.

Thorpe overcame tragedies in his youth—the death of his twin brother as well as his mother and father—to become an Olympic sensation as well as a professional player of basketball, baseball and football. Thorpe’s skill earned him praise from royalty and politicians alike, for his fans included King Gustav V of Sweden and President Dwight Eisenhower.

Thorpe’s life was not without controversy, however. His Olympic medals were taken away after newspapers reported that he’d played baseball for money as a student, even though the wages he made were meager.

After the Depression, Thorpe worked a series of odd jobs to support his family. He had so little money that he could not afford medical care when he developed lip cancer. Born in 1888, Thorpe died of heart failure in 1953.

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Navajo World Code Talkers
Navajo Code Talkers rank Chee Willeto and Samuel Holiday. Navajo Nation Washington Office, Flickr.com

Considering the federal government’s atrocious treatment of American Indians, one would think that Native Americans would’ve been the last group to offer their services to the U.S. military. But during World War II, the Navajo agreed to help when the military requested their assistance in developing a code based on the Navajo language. As predicted, the Japanese intelligence experts couldn’t break the new code.

Without the help of the Navajo, World War II conflicts such as the Battle of Iwo Jima may have turned out very differently for the U.S. Because the code the Navajo created remained a top secret for decades, their efforts have only been recognized by the U.S. government in recent years. The Navajo Code Talkers are also the subject of Hollywood motion picture “Windtalkers.”

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Irene Bedard
Actress Irene Bedard attends the premiere of Vox Box Entertainment's 'Ron and Laura Take Back America' at Sundance Cinema on March 9, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

Once upon a time, Native American actors were relegated to the sidelines in Hollywood Westerns. Over the decades, however, the roles available to them have grown. In films such as “Smoke Signals”—written, produced and directed by an all-Native American team—characters of indigenous background are given the platform to express a range of emotions rather than playing stereotypes such as stoic warriors or medicine men. Thanks to notable First Nations actors such as Adam Beach, Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal, Irene Bedard and Russell Means, the silver screen increasingly features complex American Indian characters.

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Native American activists
Native American advocate Russell Means at press conference, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, 1971. (Photo by Spencer Grant/Getty Images)

In the 1960s and ’70s, the American Indian Movement (AIM) mobilized Native Americans across the United States to fight for their rights. These activists accused the U.S. government of ignoring longstanding treaties, denying Indian tribes their sovereignty and failing to counteract the substandard healthcare and education indigenous peoples received, not to mention the environmental toxins to which they were exposed on reservations.

By occupying the island of Alcatraz in Northern California and the town of Wounded Knee, S.D., the American Indian Movement drew more attention to the plight of Native Americans in the 20th century than any other movement.

Unfortunately, violent episodes such as the Pine Ridge Shootout sometimes reflect negatively on AIM. Although AIM still exists, U.S. agencies such as the FBI and the CIA largely neutralized the group in the 1970s.

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American Indian Writers

Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo, writer during 2005 Sundance Film Festival - 'A Thousand Roads' Portraits at HP Portrait Studio in Park City, Utah, United States. (Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage)

For far too long, narratives about Native Americans have largely been in the hands of those who colonized and conquered them. American Indian writers such as Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, M. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko and Joy Harjo have reshaped the narrative about indigenous peoples in the U.S. by writing award-winning literature that captures the humanity and complexity of Native Americans in contemporary society.

These writers have not only been praised for their craftsmanship but for helping to counteract harmful stereotypes about American Indians. Their novels, poetry, short stories and nonfiction complicate views of Native American life.