Strong leadership in American Indian communities has sustained American Indian peoples and American Indian nations for thousands of years. Modern heroes continue that strong leadership tradition and embody those virtues that our ancestors held to be important qualities of a good leader. Our heroes and activists are our modern day warriors who continue to fight for American Indian people, social justice, environmental justice, and treaty rights.
The list of modern American Indian heroes and activists is long, and this resource guide cannot include all of them. However this resource guide does include some of the most significant and important agents of change in Indian Country. The writings of Vine Deloria Jr. inspired an entire generation of scholars and advocates for American Indian causes.
This guide lists familiar American Indian Movement as well as some newer environmental activists, such as the Black Mesa Water Coalition and the Save the Peaks Coalition. The youth involved in these efforts are inspiring as they lead the way for the new generation of modern heroes and activists.
Books on American Indian Activism and Social Movements
Alfred, T. (1999). Peace, power, righteousness: An indigenous manifesto. Oxford University Press: New York.
Taiaiake Alfred (Mohawk) discusses colonization and its effects on First Nations peoples and other indigenous groups. He critiques current leadership structures and advocates for a return to traditional leadership models.
Crow Dog, M. (1990). Lakota woman. HarperPerennial: New York.
Mary Crow Dog describes her encounters in the American Indian Movement during the 1970s. She also relates her experience as a mixed-blood woman on the Pine Ridge Reservation and her marriage to a prominent medicine man of that community.
Deloria, Jr., V. (1969). Custer died for your sins. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman.
This is one of the most premier influential pieces by Vine Deloria, Jr. (Hunkpapa Lakota). This book inspired American Indian people by addressing issues that affected us such as images, stereotypes, federal Indian law, and treaty rights. In many ways it served as a catalyst for American Indians to bring change and demand attention to injustices. It began a movement for continued scholarship on American Indians by American Indians. Deloria, with wit and irony, cleverly demands the rights that American Indians fought for.
Deloria, Jr., V. (1974) Behind the trail of broken treaties. University of Texas Press: Austin.
He describes the incidents leading up to the 1973 standoff between American Indian Movement activists, the tribal government, and the FBI at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. Deloria makes an argument for renegotiating the treaty process and gives a history of the relationship between Indian nations and the federal government. Deloria discusses the foundational principles of federal Indian law such as the doctrine of discovery.
Deloria, Jr., V. (1999) Spirit and reason: The Vine Deloria, Jr., reader. Fulcrum Publishing: Golden.
This is a compilation of influential articles, excerpts from books, and essays covering a variety of topics including philosophy, education, history, and social science. A good introduction and summary of Deloria’s work, it includes his most renowned pieces, such as Custer Died for Your Sins and some unpublished pieces.
Johnson, T., Nagel, J., & Champagne, D. (eds.) (1997). American Indian activism: Alcatraz to the longest walk. University of Illinois Press: Champaign.
This anthology of 16 essays primarily focuses on the two-year American Indian occupation of the island of Alcatraz in California. Noted American Indian scholars analyze the events that transpired and provide context and historical accounts of one of the most radical demonstrations in the history of American Indian activism.
LaDuke, W. (1999) All our relations: Native struggles for land and life. South End Press: Cambridge.
In this book, environmental activist Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe) includes testimonies from different communities facing environmental difficulties. At the center of the book is her commitment to the land. LaDuke founded Honor the Earth and the White Earth Land Recovery Project. LaDuke was also Ralph Nader’s running mate in 1996 and 2000, the first American Indian woman to run as vice president. For more information on Winona LaDuke, see the following website: www.honorearth.org/node/57.
Mankiller, W. (2004). Everyday is a good day. Fulcrum Publishing: Golden.
Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee) conducted interviews with 19 Native women including commentary from LaDonna Harris, Joy Harjo, and Joanne Shenandoah. The book relates stories and wisdom from American Indian women leaders across the nation with an introduction by Vine Deloria, Jr. The topics include ceremony, womanhood, and roles of women.
Smith. A. Conquest: Sexual violence and American Indian genocide. South End Press: Cambridge.
Andrea Smith (Cherokee) correlates sexual violence and exploitation of Native women with genocide and colonization. She discusses community action and response to violence against women. Smith explores ways for communities to get involved and eradicate gender violence and provides sources for communities.
Wilson, A. & Yellow Bird, M. (eds.) For indigenous eyes only: Decolonization handbook. School of American Research Press: Santa Fe.
Michael Yellowbird and Angela Wilson edited this handbook for social change in Indian communities. The authors take a workbook approach and offer practical ideas and solutions for working through community problems that stem from colonization. There are a variety of topics covered from American Indian scholars and advocates such as Susan Shown Harjo, Cornell Pewewardy, James Riding In, and many others. The book’s premise is that colonization is at the root of social ills in American Indian communities.
Wunder, J. (1999). Native American cultural and religious freedoms. Garland: New York.
John R. Wunder provides a compilation of articles about pertinent American Indian religious freedoms and rights issues, including use of eagle feathers, sacred sites, repatriation and museums, and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.
Autobiography/Biography on Influential Modern Heroes
Harris, L. & Stockel, H. (2006). Ladonna Harris: a Comanche life. Bison Books: Lincoln.
LaDonna Harris (Comanche) is a political activist and leader. The wife of former U.S. Sen. Fred Harris, she used her position to advocate for American Indian peoples and nations, as described in this autobiography. She founded the Americans for Indian Opportunity organization, which advocates for and fosters American Indian leadership. Harris fought for improved socio-economic conditions of American Indians and was instrumental in creating the National Indian Housing Council and other organizations that promote American Indians. For more information about Harris see, www.aio.org/about_aio/ladonna_harris.
Mankiller, W. & Wallis, M. (1999). Mankiller, a chief and her people. St. Martin’s Griffin: New York.
The former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller describes her work as the first female chief of the tribe and as a national leader in Indian Country.
Neithammer, C. (2004). I’ll go and do more: Annie Dodge Wauneka, Navajo leader and activist. Bison Books: Lincoln.
Annie Wauneka (Navajo) lobbied for heath care improvement on the Navajo Reservation. Carolyn Neithammer’s biography details how she was elected to the tribal council in 1951 and continued to advocate for healthcare and social improvement up until the 1980s. She was awarded the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom for her advocacy efforts in 1963.
Parker, D. (1994). Singing an Indian song: A biography of D’Arcy McNickle. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln.
D’Arcy McNickle (Salish Kootenai/Cree) was an anthropologist, writer, professor, and a founding member of the National Congress of American Indians. McNickle was also an administrator of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Peltier, L. (2000). My life is my Sundance. St. Martin’s Griffin: New York.
American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) has been imprisoned since 1977 for the alleged 1975 shooting of two FBI agents at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Peltier has maintained his innocence and garnered support across the world for his release. He describes the difficulty of his prison sentence as being like a Lakota Sundance.
Viola, H. (2002). Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American warrior. Johnson Books: Boulder.
Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne) is a former U.S. senator and representative for the state of Colorado. He is a longtime advocate for American Indian issues. Nighthorse Campbell is also a renowned silver smith and is currently retired from politics but continues his advocacy efforts through his work with the law firm Holland and Knight.
Online Sources about Individuals
Mary and Carrie Dann (Western Shoshone)
Western Shoshone Defense Project
P.O. Box 211308
Crescent Valley, NV 89821
Phone: (775) 468-0230
The Dann sisters are renowned for their efforts to reclaim millions of acres of Shoshone traditional homeland. They have been involved in a decades-long struggle to recover land and to have grazing rights.
Ada Deer (Menominee)
Best known for her success in restoring her tribe after federal termination, Ada Deer was chairwoman of the Native American Rights Fund and head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Deer has been an advocate for American Indian people and Indian rights.
Walter Echohawk (Pawnee)
Phone: (918) 592-9874
Walter Echohawk is a lawyer and scholar who had worked for the Native American Rights Fund (located in Boulder, CO) for over 35 years. He was involved in the passage of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act in 1990 and advocated for the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act of 1978.
John Echo Hawk (Pawnee)
Boulder, CO 80302-6296
Phone: (303) 447-8760
John Echohawk is one of the founders of and has been the executive director of the Native American Rights Fund since 1977. He was the first American Indian to graduate from the University of New Mexico School of Law. Echohawk was listed as one of the top 100 influential lawyers in the nation by the National Law Journal.
Oren Lyons (Onondaga)
Department of American Studies
University at Buffalo, North Campus
1010 Clemens Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-4630
Phone: (716) 645-2546
A Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, Lyons is an acclaimed activist concerned with environmental issues and climate change. He is professor emeritus of American Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Buffy Sainte Marie (Cree)
9595 Wilshire Blvd. Suite 1020
Beverly Hills, CA 90212
A celebrated musician and song writer from Canada since the 1960s, Buffy Sainte Marie founded the Nihewan Foundation in 1969 to further education efforts of American Indian youth. She is an educational advocate, and for many decades, she has raised awareness of social issues through her music.
Suzan Shown Harjo (Southern Cheyenne/Creek)
Morning Star Institute
Phone: (202) 547-5531
Suzan Shown Harjo is president of the Morningstar Institute and is known internationally as an advocate for repatriation and protection of sacred places. She is at the forefront in the fight against the Washington Redskins to change their name and of raising awareness about the negative impact of American Indian sport mascots. Harjo also was instrumental in the passage of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act.
Gail Small (Northern Cheyenne)
P.O. Box 409
Lame Deer, MT 59043
Gail Small is a founder of Native Action, a non-profit organization on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation that addresses environmental, social justice, and voting rights issues in Montana. Her organization has played a pivotal role in protecting the Northern Plains in general and the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in particular from the impacts of fossil fuel development.
Americans for Indian Opportunity
Phone: (505) 842-8677
Americans for Indian Opportunity (AIO) blends cultural initiatives to foster leadership for American Indian to become agents of change. AIO is known for its ambassadors program, which fosters the development of American Indian young leadership.
Black Mesa Water Coalition
P.O. Box 613
Flagstaff, AZ 86002
This coalition works to protect water sources in Black Mesa, AZ, which is an area affected by the Peabody Coal Mine. The group raises public awareness and works with both Diné and Hopi youth in grassroots efforts for community involvement.
First Nations Development Institute
703 3rd Avenue, Suite B
Longmont, CO 80501
Phone: (303) 774-7836
Now based out of Colorado with offices in Virginia, the First Nations Development Institute supports developing American Indian economies. The organization offers grants and training to non-profits, tribal governments, and for profit entities.
Honor the Earth
2104 Stevens Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55404
Phone: (612) 879-7529
Honor the Earth is a Native-led organization established by Winona LaDuke and Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers in 1993 to address the two primary needs of the Native environmental movement: the need to break the geographic and political isolation of Native communities and the need to increase financial resources for organizing and change. The website offers several publications.
Indigenous Environmental Network
Bemidji Main Office:
PO Box 485
Bemidji, MN 56619
Phone: (218) 751-4967
This network promotes environmental protection efforts among indigenous communities and helps indigenous groups to develop strategies to protect their culture and land.
Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism
P.O. Box 72
Nixon, NV 89424
Phone: (775) 574-0248
This council assists indigenous peoples and communities to protect their genetic resources by providing educational and technical support in order for communities to safeguard their indigenous knowledge systems.
National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)
1516 P Street NW, Washington, DC 20005
Phone: (202) 466-7767
Founded in 1944 and based in Washington, DC, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is one of the oldest if not the oldest American Indian organizations still active in the United States. It advocates on behalf of American Indian nations. NCAI is instrumental in policy making and communicating with law makers about American Indian concerns.
Office of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission
P.O. Box 1689
Window Rock, AZ 86515-3390
Phone: (928) 871-7436
This office advocates for Navajo human rights and investigates discriminatory incidents involving Navajo people. The commission conducts hearings throughout the reservation on different human rights issues such as border town racism and sacred sites.
National Indian Youth Council
Norman Ration, Executive Director
318 Elm Street SE
Albuquerque, NM 87102
Phone: (505) 247-2251
Founded in 1961 the council primarily assists youth with employment and training programs. The group is well-known for its successful job placement programs. The group also advocates on health and educational issues.
Native American Rights Fund (NARF)
Boulder, CO 80302-6296
Based in Boulder, CO, with additional offices in Alaska and Washington, DC, NARF provides legal services and technical assistance to tribes and Indian indivudals. NARF is instrumental in policy making and provides a clearinghouse of legal documents and federal Indian law publications.
Save the Peaks Coalition
Formed in 2004 to protect the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, AZ, from reclaimed wastewater, the coalition has been at the forefront of legal battles to protect the peaks. The San Francisco Peaks are sacred to several tribes including Navajo, Hopi, and Apache.
Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development
P.O. Box 4569
Arcata, CA 95518 or
425 I Street, Arcata, CA 95521
Phone: (707) 825-7640
Founded in 1977, the Seventh Generation Fund provides resources and technical assistance for Native grassroots organizations in the form of grants and capacity building. They focus are cultural protection and revitalization, tribal sovereignty, and culturally appropriate economic development.
Benally, K. (Producer), (Director). (2005). The snowbowl effect. United States: Indigenous Action Media.
The film covers the controversial issue of using reclaimed wastewater to make snow for skiing on the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, AZ. The peaks are sacred to several tribes. American Indian nations have been fighting in court regarding the issue.
Hermann, C. (Producer), & Towfighnia, S. (Director). (2007). Standing silent nation. United States: Prairie Dust Films.
The White Plumes, a Lakota family in South Dakota, have been embroiled in a fight to grow hemp on their tribal land. The film addresses issues of sovereignty, economic development, and environmental sustainability.
Killsback, L. (Producer), (Director). (2009). The chiefs prophecy [Documentary]. United States: Arizona Public Media.
This documentary focuses on the leadership of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. Killsback interviews tribal elders and tribal leaders about leadership ideals and contemporary issues among the Northern Cheyenne people. This discussion is centered on traditional philosophies and prophecy, framed in a spiritual context.
McLeod, C. & Maynor, M. (Producers), & McLeod, C. (Director). (1999). In the light of reverence [Documentary]. United States: Earth Island Institute.
This documentary shares the stories of the Wintu of California, the Hopi of Arizona, and the Lakota in the Black Hills in their fights for their sacred places and religious freedom.
Redford, R. (Producer), & Apted, M. (Director). (1992). Incident at Oglala [Documentary]. United States: Spanish Fork Motion Picture.
Incident at Oglala is about the case of Leonard Peltier and the shoot-out and death of two FBI officials. The documentary looks at the events surrounding and leading up to the events and conviction of Peltier. The premise of the film is that Peltier was unjustly convicted and the victim of conspiracy and government cover-ups.
Rosenstein, J. (Producer), (Director). (1997). In whose honor? United States: Jay Rosenstein Productions.
This film closely examines the use of American Indian images as mascots. The film follows Charlene Teters (Spokane) in her battle against the degrading mascot of the University of Illinois, the “Fighting Illini.”
Silverman, J.L. (Producer), & Lucas, P. (Director). (2009). For the rights of all: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska. United States: Blueberry Productions.
This film portrays the story of the Civil Rights Movement in Alaska and the fight for the passage of the Alaska Anti-Discriminatory Act of 1975.
Cheryl Redhorse Bennett (Diné and Comanche) is from Shiprock, NM. She earned her Master’s Degree in American Indian Studies from UCLA. She is now a Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona where she is doing her dissertation research on bordertown violence.She can be contacted at email@example.com.