November is Native American Heritage Month! We’re excited to honor a selection of notable First Nation figures who have made significant cultural contributions in a variety of fields. We’ll be showcasing two per week—if only we had time for more!
November 2: Mourning Dove
November 8: John Herrington
November 10: Winona LaDuke
November 16: Cheyenne Jackson
November 18: Mary G. Ross
November 22: Jacoby Ellsbury
November 25: Maria Tallchief
November 29: Sherman Alexie
Author Mourning Dove was actually born Christal Quintasket, with the Native name Hum-ishu-ma, in a canoe near Bonner Ferry Idaho in 1888. While attending a mostly white public school, she was forced to give up her first language of Salish in favor of English. This caused her to forever lose the true meaning of her given Native name, and she chose Mourning Dove as the closest English approximation. Her ancestry was a blend of Sinixt, Colville, and Okanagan tribes.
She is best known for her 1927 novel Cogewea, the Half-Blood, which is one of the first known books by an American Indian woman, and one of the earliest to also feature a female protagonist. The story follows a young girl caught between two worlds, living in both white and Native cultures, and it resonates with mixed-race people to this day.
She went on to write several more books, including the short story collection Coyote Stories (1933), a second novel, Tales of the Okanogans (1976), and her autobiography, Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography (1990). Image credit: Portrait of Mourning Dove, taken in 1915, displayed in the American Indians of the Pacific Northwest Collection at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. Posted under fair use copyright via Wikipedia.
Astronaut John Bennett Herrington was born in the Chickasaw Nation (in Oklahoma) in 1958. He eventually attended the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and earned his bachelor’s degree in Applied Mathematics in 1983. In March 1984, Herrington earned a commission in the U.S. Navy from the Aviation Officer Candidate School. After his first operational tour in 1985, he became a Fleet Replacement Squadron Instructor Pilot. He was selected to attend the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland in January 1990 and became a test pilot for the Force Warfare Aircraft Test Directorate that December. He also gained a Master of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1995. During his time in the military, Herrington earned many service awards, including the Navy Commendation Medal, the Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation, and three Sea Service Deployment Ribbons.
In 1996, he was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate. After two years of training, he qualified for flight assignment as a mission specialist and was assigned to the Flight Support Branch. He flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavour as part of STS-113, the sixteenth shuttle mission to visit the International Space Station, on November 23, 2002. Herrington became the first enrolled member in a Native American tribe to travel in space, and took several items with him on the mission, including a Chickasaw Nation flag gifted to him by Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby, an eagle feather, and a Native flute which he used to play “Amazing Grace.” The mission lasted 13 days, 18 hours, and 47 minutes, during which he performed three spacewalks. In an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, Herrington said that space walking was what he missed most about being in space.
After his famed tour in space, Herrington retired from the Navy and NASA in July 2005 and went to work for Rocketplane Limited, an aerospace design and development company, for two years. He then embarked of a tour of a different kind—in 2008, at the age of 50, he began a three-month cross-country bicycle ride from Cape Flattery, Washington to Cape Canaveral, Florida. with the goal to get Native children interested in math and science. During the ride, he happened to meet Margo Aragon, who later became his wife. Commander Herrington now does public speaking on behalf of the Chickasaw Nation. Image credit: Public domain, by way of NASA.
Winona LaDuke was born in Los Angeles in 1959, but was raised for most of her life in Ashland, Oregon. Her father was from the Ojibwe White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, to which she moved after graduating from Harvard with a degree in Native Economic Development in 1982. She completed her master’s degree through a distance learning program while acting as principal at a reservation high school. In 1985, she co-founded the Indigenous Women's Network, and worked with the group Women of All Red Nations to fight against forced sterilization of Native American women. In 1989, she founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project to help reclaim land for the Anishinaabe that had been re-allotted and sold under the Nelson Act of 1889. In 1993, she co-founded the advocacy group Honor the Earth with folk duo The Indigo Girls, and is its Executive Director. The group’s mission is to “create awareness and support for Native environmental issues and to develop needed financial and political resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities.”
Keeping her political sights high, she ran with Green Party candidate Ralph Nader as his vice presidential pick in 1996, and again in 2000. The 2000 campaign garnered 2.74 percent of the popular vote, 3rd place overall. While the campaign did fall short of the 5 percent vote that would have qualified the party for federal funding, the Green Party was present on more state ballots than in any previous elections. The campaign also began a bigger conversation about third-party voting and political participation.
LaDuke has written five books, including the novel Last Standing Woman (1996), and has co-written many others, including The Militarization of Indian Country (2012). She has won many awards and accolades, including the Reebok Human Rights Award in 1998 (the prize money from which was put towards founding Honor the Earth), and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2007. Most recently, she was given an honorary doctorate from Augsburg College in 2015.
Winona LaDuke is still fiercely active for the rights of Indigenous People and is currently an outspoken member of #NoDAPL, the grassroots movement dedicated to stopping the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. She is also a respected speaker and has delivered keynotes, webinars, and expert testimonies on the topics of the environment, economics, and Native cultures. Image credit: Winona LaDuke speaks at Dream Reborn Conference 2008 by Eclectek via Wikimedia, used under Creative Commons.
Cheyenne Jackson was born in Newport, Washington (a small town near Spokane) in 1975. His father is said to have named him after the 1950s TV series, and not the Native American tribe from which he is descended. His mother raised him and his siblings on early folk and rock & roll, which explains his affinity for music at an early age.
While working as an ad executive in Seattle, Jackson did theater as a side gig and eventually earned his Equity card. It was then that he realized acting was something he could pursue full-time, and the September 11th attacks gave him the feeling of urgency to move across the country and do so.
Jackson's earliest acting jobs included serving as an understudy in the Broadway shows Thoroughly Modern Millie and Aida. His first big lead role was in the Elvis Presley tribute show All Shook Up, which earned him the Theatre World Award.
Jackson assumed the lead role in Xanadu on Broadway in 2007 after actor James Carpinello was injured during rehearsal. During the run, he worked with Jane Krakowski, whom he would join on other projects, including a production of Damn Yankees in 2008 and the NBC comedy series 30 Rock in 2009. Jackson has also appeared on television in Glee, Ugly Betty, Law & Order, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and most recently the fifth and sixth seasons of the popular FX series American Horror Story. He will co-star with Alicia Silverstone in the upcoming TV Land series American Woman.
Jackson has starred in several films, including the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, and his notable role as 9/11 victim and hero Mark Bingham in the Academy Award-nominated film United 93. In addition to his film, television, and stage acting career, Jackson has recorded three studio albums (including The Power of Two with music revivalist Michael Feinstein), released four singles, and sold out Carnegie Hall twice in concert. His latest solo album, Renaissance, was released on June 3, 2016.
Jackson is also a celebrated LGBTQ ambassador. He graced the cover of The Advocate and was named Entertainer of the Year by Out Magazine in 2008. He is an international ambassador for The Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) and serves as the national ambassador and spokesperson for youth support organization the Hetrick-Martin Institute and the Harvey Milk High School. He is married to actor Jason Landau; together, they welcomed twins into the world this past October. Photo credit: Karl Simone Photography via Wikimedia, used under Creative Commons.
Mary Golda Ross was born in Park Hill, Oklahoma in 1908, the great-granddaughter of the Cherokee Chief John Ross. She attended school in the Cherokee Nation capital of Tahlequah, where she also received her bachelor's degree in Mathematics in 1928. She taught math and science in public schools for nine years, during the bulk of the Great Depression. Ross then worked as a statistical clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC. She completed a master’s degree from Colorado State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley) in 1938.
In 1942, she was hired as a mathematician by the Lockheed Corporation. Her assignment was to determine the effects to the P-38 Lightning fighter plane as it neared the sound barrier, as it was the first plane of its kind to exceed 400 mph. After World War II, Lockheed sent Ross to UCLA to earn a professional certification in engineering, aeronautics, and missile and celestial mechanics. This suited her fine, as she would have preferred to work on interplanetary travel, and had been fascinated by astronomy from early in her education. In 1952, she was signed onto Lockheed’s Advanced Development Programs, known as Skunk Works, to work on design concepts for space travel, orbiting satellites, and early conceptualizing for flyby missions to Venus and Mars.
As she matured in her career and became an advanced systems engineer, Ross worked on ballistic missile defense systems, the effect of ocean waves on submarine-launched vehicles, satellite orbits, developing rockets for the Apollo moon program of the '60s and '70s, and the Polaris reentry vehicle.
She retired in 1973, highly regarded, as she was the first female Native American engineer. She worked to encourage other girls into careers in math and the sciences, joined the Society of Women Engineers, and also worked with the American Indians in Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. She participated in the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, and left the museum an endowment of $400,000 upon her death in 2008, three months shy of her 100th birthday.
Mary G. Ross won numerous awards and accolades, including The San Francisco Examiner's Award for Woman of Distinction in 1961, and entrance into the Silicon Valley Engineering Council’s Hall of Fame in 1992. Image of Mary G. Ross provided courtesy of Evelyn Ross McMillan.
New York Yankees centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury was born on September 11, 1983 in Madras, Oregon and spent his early years living with his family on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. He showed a propensity for sports at a very young age, from playing with much older children in Little League to lettering in five sports in high school. He attended Oregon State University where he was a Baseball America first-team All-American.
In 2005, Ellsbury was selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Boston Red Sox and began his career on their minor league team, the Lowell Spinners. After finishing the season with a .317 batting average and 23 stolen bases, he entered the 2006 season as the Red Sox’s sixth-best prospect. Over the next two seasons, he continued to rise higher in the minor leagues.
When outfielder Coco Crisp was injured, Ellsbury made his Red Sox debut against the Texas Rangers on June 30, 2007, becoming the first Native American of Navajo descent to reach the major leagues. He was celebrated in the press for his speed and enthusiasm, and Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky described one of his plays, a score from second base on a wild pitch, as "the greatest single play I've ever seen in all my years in baseball.” He returned to the minors after playing six games for the Red Sox, but returned to the main roster in September and became MLB's American League Rookie of the Month. Ellsbury helped the Red Sox win the World Series that fall, becoming the third rookie player in MLB history with four hits in a World Series game.
In the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Ellsbury broke several Red Sox franchise records, including their rookie record for stolen bases, and in 2009 he led the American League in stolen bases and triples. In 2010, he became the Red Sox’s starting left fielder. During a game that season, he collided with a teammate and suffered hairline fractures to four of his ribs. This injury would leave Ellsbury on the disabled list for the majority of the season. In 2011, he was voted the A.L. Comeback Player of the Year after he became the first player in Red Sox history to join the 30–30 club (at least 30 home runs and 30 steals in a season), won his first Gold Glove, and finished second in the voting for the A.L. Most Valuable Player award. In 2013, Ellsbury won his second World Series with the Red Sox and became a free agent. In December 2013, the New York Yankees signed Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract. He has a .264 batting average and 80 stolen bases in his first three New York seasons.
Ellsbury has also made significant charitable contributions. He launched the Ellsbury-Read Project in collaboration with Mountain View Hospital's Community Health Improvement Partnership in 2009, with the goal of creating a nurturing and stable environment for children, with a focus on character-building. In 2010, he released a charity wine called ZinfandEllsbury, with 100 percent of the proceeds split between The Navajo Relief Fund, Project Bread: The Walk for Hunger, and the Ellsbury-Read Project. Photo Credit: Keith Allison, used under Creative Commons via Wikimedia.
Dancer Maria Tallchief was born Elizabeth Marie "Betty" Tall Chief, with the Osage family name Ki He Kah Stah Tsa, in Fairfax, Oklahoma in 1925. Her family was well-off, as her great-grandfather had helped negotiate the ownership of oil reserves that benefited the Osage Nation. The family relocated to Los Angeles, California when she was eight years old to encourage the already-budding dance careers of Tallchief and her sister. At age 12, she began coaching with renowned choreographers Bronislava Nijinska and David Lichine.
At age 17, she moved to New York City and was accepted into Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in large part to having a passport, as many of the other dancers were Russian and could not travel with the company’s upcoming Canadian tour. In her first two months, she had been in seven performances as part of the corps de ballet. In the spring of 1943, she starred in Chopin Concerto, replacing first ballerina Nathalie Krassovska, who had left the company due to a feud with management. The part was extremely technically difficult, and Tallchief had little time to prepare. However, the performance was met with rave reviews when the company returned to New York. She soon after had major roles in Le Beau Danube and Ancient Russia.
In 1944, choreographer George Balanchine joined the company and began work on a new production, Song of Norway. The show was a huge success and resulted in a raise and title upgrade for Tallchief. She and Balanchine worked together on several more productions; they grew very close, and were married on August 16, 1946. All the while, Balanchine mentored her to evolve into a better and stronger dancer. She rose to featured soloist in the company and was the first dancer to perform the role of Coquette in Night Shadow, the ballet's most technically challenging role.
She traveled with Balanchine to the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947, becoming the first American to ever perform with the company. The French press was infatuated with her dance style and also fascinated with her cultural background. When they returned to the U.S., Tallchief joined the newly founded New York City Ballet as its first prima ballerina, and the first Native American prima ballerina in history. Though her marriage to Balanchine was eventually annulled during this time, the two of them made waves in the dance world with bold and athletic style, including her acclaimed performance in the title role of The Firebird, created especially for her by Balanchine. In 1954, Balanchine reworked The Nutcracker, which at the time was an obscure ballet, with Tallchief cast as the Sugarplum Fairy. With what was widely considered a “magical” performance, the production established itself as an annual holiday classic.
During her run with the New York City Ballet, Tallchief appeared as a guest performer with the Chicago Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, and the Hamburg Ballet, as well as on The Ed Sullivan Show and in the film musical Million Dollar Mermaid. She left the New York City Ballet in 1960; during this time, she joined the American Ballet Theatre and also became the first American dancer to appear at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Tallchief briefly relocated to Germany as part of the Hamburg Ballet before her retirement in 1966. She taught dance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in the early 1970s and co-founded the Chicago City Ballet in 1981.
Maria Tallchief has received many awards and accolades for her mesmerizing skill and representation of her heritage. In her home of Oklahoma, June 29, 1953 was declared "Maria Tallchief Day." A bronze statue of her was erected as part of The Five Moons at the Tulsa Historical Society. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996 and received a Kennedy Center Honor the same year, as well as the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1999. Her autobiography, Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina, co-written with Larry Kaplan, was published in 1997. Photo Credit: Headshot of Maria Tallchief from the April 1961 issue of Dance Magazine.
Writer Sherman Alexie was born on October 7, 1966 in Spokane, Washington. He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, his parents being of Coeur d'Alene, Colville, Choctaw, Spokane, and European American ancestry. He was born with hydrocephalus, for which he had brain surgery at 6 months old. He suffered from side effects for many years, including seizures. His health problems made him the subject of teasing as a child, and kept him from many rites of passage on the reservation.
Despite his health problems, Alexie remained an excellent student. He attended high school in Reardan, Washington, where he was the only Native American student. He continued to receive high marks, became a star basketball player, and was even elected class president. In 1985, he earned a scholarship to Gonzaga University, where he hoped to study to be a doctor. However, he found himself too squeamish and eventually switched his major to law. He soon realized that he was unsuited for that career as well. The pressure of school and his ambivalence about his future caused him to start drinking as a coping mechanism. He also turned to literature, which was what motivated him to transfer to Washington State University in 1987 and start taking creative writing courses. It was at this time that he met poet, fiction writer, and teacher Alex Kuo, who introduced Alexie to new writing influences, including poets, and showed him how to make connections between his experience and that of non-Native writers. He became a mentor during a low point in Alexie’s life.
A year after graduating college, Alexie received the Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship. In 1992, he published his first two collections of poetry, I Would Steal Horses and The Business of Fancydancing. He has said that receiving the two fellowships and his book contract to publish The Business of Fancydancing motivated him to quit drinking, and he has been sober ever since.
He published his first collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in 1993, earning the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction. His prolific career moved into full-length novels in 1995 with Reservation Blues, which revisits some characters from his short fiction works. His 2007 young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the National Book Award and the California Young Reader Medal, among other awards.
Alexie has also had a successful hand in filmmaking. The 1998 movie Smoke Signals, which he adapted from the short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, broke ground as the first film written, directed, and co-produced by Native Americans. Additionally, all the film’s major roles were portrayed by Native American actors. Smoke Signals earned the Filmmaker's Trophy (for Cheyenne-Arapaho director Chris Eyre) and the Audience Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Alexie also won several honors for the film personally, including Outstanding Achievement in Writing (First Americans in the Arts), Best Screenplay (San Diego World Film Festival), and Best Newcomer (shared with Chris Eyre, Florida Film Critics Circle Awards). In 2005, Alexie became a founding board member of Longhouse Media, a nonprofit whose mission is to “catalyze indigenous people and communities to use media as a tool for self-expression, cultural preservation, and social change.”
Sherman Alexie has published 25 books over the course of his ongoing career, including his first children’s book, Thunder Boy Jr., which he believes might also be the first picture book about a contemporary Native American family. His most recent book of poetry, What I've Stolen, What I've Earned, was published in 2013, and Blasphemy, a collection of new and classic stories, was published in 2012. Photo Credit: Sherman Alexie at the 2007 Texas Book Festival, Austin by Larry D. Moore, used under Creative Commons via Wikimedia.