As the backbone of nations, indigenous women have nurtured and maintained their communities for millennia. Generations of strong indigenous women have been molded by culture and tradition, and seasoned by lifetimes of great depth, struggle, and triumph. Indigenous women of today have risen through layers of colonization, knowing that we not only possess immense power as women, but that we also have the great honor and responsibility of lifting others in our communities.
The following women featured here exemplify the incredible strength and commitment of our feminine ancestors and grandmothers. These inspiring indigenous women have devoted much of their lives to building, protecting, and healing their people. They represent a deep and ancestral love for community and all creation that can be transformed into so many great things – to healing, and to empowerment, proving that wherever we direct our passion and our love, we can create something beautiful. We can heal our earth and our communities, one heart, one person, and one family at a time.
1. Naelyn Pike, Chiricahua Apache
Apache Stronghold, Protector
Naelyn Pike is a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, and a recent graduate of Globe High School in Globe, Arizona. For the past two years, Naelyn has been involved with the Apache Stronghold to protect Oak Flat, a sacred place to the Apache people which is being threatened by a copper mining operation.
“For over 11 years, we have been fighting against Resolution Copper, a mining corporation who wants to extract the largest copper ore in North America. This block cave mining will destroy the land, the water and the Apache way of life,” Pike said.
Naelyn grew up looking up to her grandfather, Wendlser Nosie, Sr., as he fought for human rights, the land, and the water. “I knew I had to follow what my grandfather was doing,” she said. “When I watch him and think of my great grandmother, Elvera, I feel a sense of honor and pride, because I come from such strong people. As indigenous people we all come from a line a resilient people who believe that we matter. That is why I have to make the stand, and we all have to make the stand to protect our mother, the earth.”
Naelyn is the oldest daughter in her family and also the oldest grandchild on both paternal and maternal sides. “I would look at my little sisters and younger cousins, and feel so emotional because I was fighting for them. I had to stand for my family, my people, and the yet to be born. That was through speaking to tell the people to stand with the Apache Stronghold, and to not just protect the holy lands of Oak Flat, but for all land and water, and our beliefs as indigenous people.”
Naelyn continues to fight for the protection of Oak Flat. Naelyn is also a student member of the Center for Native American Youth, the National Honor Society, and the National Society of High School Scholars.
2. Johnnie Jae, Otoe-Missouria and Choctaw
Journalist, Podcaster, Founder of A Tribe Called Geek
Johnnie Jae is a multi-passionate and multi-talented indigenous advocate, writer, journalist, technologist, entrepreneur and podcaster. She devotes her energy to a plethora of important causes and unique interests, proving that indigenous women can be and always have been skilled at many things.
“Talking about my work is always complicated because I never really know where to start. Like every Native woman I know, I wear many hats and do a little of everything,” Jae said.
Johnnie Jae is the founder and CEO of A Tribe Called Geek, a multimedia company dedicated to showcasing and encouraging indigenous contributions to geek & pop culture as well as STEM fields. As a journalist, she contributes her works to Native Max Magazine, Native News Online, Complex, and Good Men Project. She is also a producer and podcaster for the Success Native Style Radio Network, and a founding board member for both Not Your Mascots and LiveindigenousOK.
“The hyper-visibility of mascots, stereotypes and whitewashed history has rendered us invisible in our own lands,” she said. “The work that I do is centered around creating platforms that encourage and empower us to reclaim our narratives, tell our own stories and challenge the misrepresentation that is so rampant within every facet of our society. Representation matters, and the more voices we have speaking up, the harder it is for our struggles, achievements and humanity to be ignored.”
Johnnie is also an advocate of indigenous and human rights issues, and speaks at many events throughout Indian country on youth empowerment, suicide prevention, gender and racial equity, police brutality, reconciliation and solidarity, and indigenous representation in the media. She currently resides within the Comanche Nation in Lawton, Oklahoma.
“It is my hope that as we continue to make progress in the way we are viewed by non-natives, that we continue to make progress in the way that we view and value our own people despite their struggles and successes, to move forward knowing that it is not only OK, but necessary for us to heal, thrive, honor and empower each other.”
3. Jennifer Himel, Hopi
Mother, Librarian, Teacher, Founder of UNiTE to End Violence
Jennifer Himel is of Hopi tribe of Arizona, from the village of Tewa. She is also of the Bear Clan.
By day, Jennifer works as a librarian at First Mesa Elementary School in Polacca, and teaches reading to kindergarten through sixth grade. She is the founder of an indigenous domestic violence awareness movement, UNiTE to End Violence: Native Women’s Empowerment.
“As a survivor of domestic violence, once I was in recovery I felt like there were so many stigmas against single mothers and domestic violence, even though Native American experience the highest rates of violence in the United States,” Himel said. “I feel that by talking about my story openly and being positive about the path to healing from trauma, that other women who are in desperate situations might find the courage to reach out.”
On the twenty-fifth day of every month, Jennifer and others who have joined the movement wear orange and gather to run and exercise. “We do this as an effort to show Native women in abusive relationships or recovering from one that they are not alone.”
“I want to celebrate healthy relationships, and applaud good parents, single, married, whatever, as long as it’s emotionally healthy,” Himel said. “I also want tribes and governments to recognize that there are people in need and that we at Unite to End Violence are here to encourage those entities to put more money into actual programs that provide direct services to victims of domestic violence.”
Jennifer is a single mother, and also dedicates much of her time to practicing traditions and attending ceremonies in her village.
4. Sunny Red Bear, Lakota
Mother, Advocate, Writer, Spoken word Artist, Creative Writing Teacher
Sunny Red Bear of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is a writer, spoken word artist, and advocate for women healing from sexual abuse. She currently resides in Denver, Colorado with her son and husband.
“There are many reasons why I take a stand for the work that I do,” Red Bear said. “I have lived a life that has allowed me to struggle, hit rock bottom, heal, overcome, and empower myself to help others.”
Sunny has written and spoken about her healing journey as a survivor of sexual abuse, inspiring many women and men of all ages to begin their own healing process. In “Pursuit of Innocence,” published with Last Real Indians, Sunny wrote, “I lost my innocence at an age before I even understood the word. I was Kindergarten age, where we mixed blue and red paint and magically made purple.”
Sunny has spoken around the U.S. and Indian country at various sexual abuse advocate trainings, at women’s and youth conferences, at elementary, middle and high schools, at domestic abuse events, community council meetings, and police departments where she shared her story, her poetry, and her healing journey with many others.
“I believe there are choices we all make when we deal with trauma and one of the choices I made was to not let my wounds stop me from my purpose,” Red Bear said. “There is a huge need for healing in our communities, families and within ourselves. I believe the work I do is adding an arrow to the bundle for us to be stronger as a tribe.”
At Last Real Indians, Sunny has also written about other issues uniquely affecting Indian country, such as racism. “My hope is that we can all learn to love ourselves enough to realize we deserve healing and that we can learn to create tools to help each of us reach that goal.”
Watch some of Sunny’s spoken word artistry, here.
Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth. Follow her at @SarahSunshineM.