Native Warrior Women
Updated: May 11
Indian women have always been written out of history, but their bravery is being rediscovered in archives and Native oral traditions.
We all know the immortal names of Pocahontas and Sacagawea, native women who played important roles in the formation of our early nation. But very few Americans know the names of the many native female warriors who fought—and sometimes died—alongside their male brethren.
The truth about the history of warfare is that women have always participated as warriors in defending their children, their families, their tribes, their nation. But the writers of history—nearly always men—throughout the ages have fallen abysmally short of giving women due credit for their part in warfare. This is certainly true for Native American warrior women. Today, research and scholarship, the uncovering of long-hidden documents, archeology, and diaries are revealing more and more that women fought bravely and fiercely for the loved ones and causes they believed in. This area of history shows dramatically that history—and the recording of history—is a living, breathing thing. What we read in our elementary textbooks and viewed in Hollywood movies growing up cannot be taken as gospel.
Here’s something we never learned in history books or from Hollywood: Female Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors fought at the Battle of the Little Bighorn—Custer’s Last Stand—with distinction. Cheyenne warrior Buffalo Calf Road Woman fought many battles, and tribal lore passed down for 143 years credits her with killing George Armstrong Custer. There’s more to the story of Buffalo Calf Road Woman, as told by nationally respected Cheyenne elder, Peace Chief, member of tribal government, and the National Historic Preservation Representative of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma:
“Cheyenne warrior Buffalo Calf Road Woman had fought a number of battles in leadership roles. At the Battle of the Little Big Horn, it is told she charged Custer, grabbed his saber and stabbed him, knocking him off his horse, killing him. Afterward, Cheyenne and Arapaho women stabbed their awls in Custer’s ears, chanting ‘you will listen to our people in the next world.’ They were avenged.”
She wasn’t the only female warrior at the Little Big Horn. The Arapaho Chief, Pretty Nose, fought there, too. She lived to be 101 years old and her grandson served in the Korean War as a U.S. Marine and later an Arapaho chief, just like his grandmother.
Lozen (c. 1840-June 17, 1889) was a female warrior and prophet of the Chihenne Chiricahua Apache who fought beside Geronimo. She was the sister of Victorio, a prominent chief. Born into the Chihenne band during the 1840s, Lozen was, according to legends, able to use her powers in battle to learn the movements of the enemy. The Apache tribesman, scholar and author, James Kaywaykla, was a child during the fighting days of Geronimo, Lozen and Victorio. Kaywaykla wrote, as a child:
"I saw a magnificent woman on a beautiful horse—Lozen, sister of Victorio. Lozen the woman warrior! High above her head she held her rifle. "She could ride, shoot, and fight like a man, and I think she had more ability in planning military strategy than did Victorio."
He added that Chief Victorio honored his sister as a great warrior: "Lozen is my right hand ... strong as a man, braver than most, and cunning in strategy. Lozen is a shield to her people."
Lozen fought beside Geronimo after his breakout from the San Carlos reservation in 1885, in the last campaign of the Apache wars. The band was pursued relentlessly by both the U.S. and Mexican cavalries. According to Alexander B. Adams in his book Geronimo, Lozen would try to ascertain where the enemy was by standing “with her arms outstretched, chant a prayer to Ussen, the Apaches' supreme deity, and slowly turn around." The band often relied on her strategic prowess.
In 1885, Geronimo and about 140 of his followers, including Lozen, fled the reservation when they heard rumors that they were to be imprisoned on Alcatraz Island. Lozen and another female warrior, Dahteste, were designated to try to negotiate a peace treaty. Ultimately, after Geronimo's final surrender, Lozen traveled as a prisoner of war to the barracks in Mount Vernon, Alabama. There, along with many of her fellow warriors, Lozen died in confinement of tuberculosis in 1889.
Dahteste was a Mescalero Apache warrior who rode with Lozen. Dahteste was fluent in English and often acted as a translator for the Apache people and was designated to lead in treaty negotiations with the American and Mexican armies. When Geronimo surrendered, she was arrested alongside Geronimo and Lozen, but was shipped to St. Augustine, Florida, rather than the barracks in Alabama. Nevertheless, like other prisoners in Florida, she contracted tuberculosis and pneumonia, but managed to survive both. Some scholars believe that Lozen and Dahteste were two-spirits and lovers.
Yet another female warrior rode with Lozen and Dahteste and fought with Geronimo. Her name was Gouyen. When her first husband was killed in a Comanche raid in the 1870s, she avenged her husband’s death in such a heroic manner, it became a legend in Apache lore.
Gouyen tracked back to the camp of the Comanche chief who had killed her husband. She found him watching their victory dance, her husband’s scalp hanging from his belt. Gouyen put on a buckskin puberty ceremonial dress and joined the circle of dancers. She seduced the drunken chief and they retired to his teepee. There, she stabbed the Comanche with his own knife, killing him, scalped him, took his breechcloth and moccasins, then stole his horse. She returned to her tribe and laid the Comanche scalp and clothing before the parents of her dead husband as evidence that she had avenged his death. Gouyen later fought with Geronimo and lost an infant daughter during a battle. She was with him when he surrendered in 1886.
Woman Chief was a significant Crow chief (1806-1858) who fascinated many white visitors to the frontier and was featured in significant autobiographies and journals of frontier authors. She was born to the Gros Ventres tribe but was taken prisoner by the Crow when she was 10. She was adopted by a Crow warrior who had lost his sons in battle. The child, possibly named “Pine Leaf,” showed an early aptitude for male activities, including horsemanship, marksmanship and butchering buffalo, and her foster father encouraged her. Unlike some two-spirits, she continued to wear female clothing, although she was admired for her expertise in masculine endeavors. When her beloved father died, she took over as leader of his lodge.
She first gained notoriety as a warrior during a Blackfeet raid on her Crow tribe. She fought off many attackers single-handedly and led an attack that drove the Blackfeet back. She soon raised her own band of warriors and retaliated against the Blackfeet, taking many horses and scalps. In honor of her bravery, she was given the name Bianwacheeitchish, meaning Woman chief and accepted into the Council of Chiefs. She married four wives, her lodge prospered, and she became a tribal leader in peace negotiations with Upper Missouri tribes. Ironically, she would eventually be ambushed and killed by the Gros Ventres, the tribe of her birth.
Running Eagle was a Blackfeet warrior woman of the Piegan tribe in southern Alberta. Born the oldest of five children, as a young girl, she preferred to play with boys. When she was 12, she started wearing boys’ attire and her father, a leading warrior in their tribe. began to teach her hunting, riding and fighting. When she was about 12, she was already good enough to ride on hunting expeditions and shoot a buffalo on her own.
During a buffalo hunting expedition, her tribe was attacked by the enemy Assiniboine. As they were fleeing, her father was shot down. She reeled her horse around, riding directly into enemy fire, and pulled her father up onto her horse, saving him. Her tribe celebrated her heroism and she joined in raids and fighting after that. During a raid on a Crow camp, she captured 11 horses and killed two Crow herself. She was eventually given the honored name “Running Eagle” by the tribe’s chief and was accepted into the Braves Society of Young Warriors. She was killed sometime after 1878 by Flathead braves when she was leading a war party.
Osh-Tisch, meaning “Finds Them and Kills Them” was a “boté” spiritual leader and warrior woman of the Crow nation. (Boté is the Crow word for “two spirit.”) Finds Them and Kills Them fought at the Battle of the Rosebud in 1876 in which the Crow fought against the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne. When a Crow warrior was wounded and fell off his horse, Finds Them and Kills Them jumped from her horse and defended the wounded man with a salvo from her rifle and killed a Lakota. Finds Them and Kills Them was also honored as a spiritual leader and shaman, medicine woman, and artist and became known for her bead and leather work. She died in 1929 at age 75.
Examples of other women warriors are too numerous to list here. And more are coming to light as tribal lore passed down through oral traditions, research and scholarly work are revealing. But many more have been lost to history. Women like Lozen and Buffalo Calf Road Woman are testament that bravery in war is not limited to the domain of just men.
PHOTOS: (1) A photograph of the Cheyenne warrior, Buffalo Calf Road Woman, who tribal lore passed down for 143 years claims killed Custer at the Little Bighorn. Photo by Edward Curtis, around 1876. (2) The Arapaho Chief, Pretty Nose, who also fought at the Little Bighorn. Photo by Laton Alton Huffman about 1879. Montana Historical Society. (3) Lozen was a Chiricahua Apache warrior who fought with Geronimo. Tribal lore holds that she was able to anticipate the enemy’s movements. (4 & 5) Dahteste was another Apache warrior who rode with Lozen and Geronimo. Left photograph shows her as a younger woman (circa about 1875). The right photograph was taken around in 1886. She died at age 95 and was able to live about the last 20 years of her life with her people in New Mexico. (6) Geronimo’s band (circa mid-1880s) shows both Lozen (sixth from the right in the upper row) and Dahteste, beside her on the right. (7) There are no known photographs of Woman Chief, but this Illustration of “Pine Leaf” in the autobiography of early frontiersman, James Beckwourth, is believed to be the Crow woman known as “Woman Chief.” (8) Running Eagle was a renowned Blackfeet warrior who led many successful battles, especially against the Crow and Flathead. (9) Gouyen was a Chiricahua Apache warrior woman who fought with Geronimo and two other warrior women, Lozen and Dahteste. She showed bravery many times in battle. (10 & 11) Osh-Tisch, meaning “Finds Them and Kills Them,” was a warrior woman of the Crow nation who fought valiantly at the 1876 Battle of the Rosebud. These photographs show her as a young warrior and later in life.
"Native Warrior Women" was originally posted on Facebook and Notes from the Frontier on September 28, 2019
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