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From capturing the heart of a nation with awe-inspiring athleticism to elevating American ballet onto the world stage, Indigenous peoples have persisted in the face of systemic racism and oppression to make indispensable contributions to our society.

Here are five such Native Americans who have shaped American culture.

Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox Nation)

Jim Thorpe is lauded as one of the greatest professional athletes of the 20th century. Throughout his two-decade sports career, Thorpe awed the world as a multi-sport athlete, winning two All-American titles, playing on a total of nine professional football and baseball teams, and netting two Olympic gold medals. 

Born in Prague, Indian Territory — what is now the state of Oklahoma — Thorpe attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the flagship Indian Boarding School in the United States. At Carlisle, Thorpe competed in track and field, baseball, lacrosse, ballroom dancing and football, the latter under the tutelage of legendary early American football coach Pop Warner. 

 In the 1912 summer Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden, Thorpe took gold in both the pentathlon and the decathlon. His medals were stripped in 1913, as it was revealed that Thorpe played professional baseball prior to the Olympics, violating the competition’s strict rules that only amateur athletes were allowed to compete. His medals were later reinstated in 1983, 30 years after his death. 

From 1920 to 1921, Thorpe served as the first president of the American Professional Football Association, which later became the National Football League Thorpe would go on to play for six teams in the NFL.

Thorpe retired from sports at the age of 41.  His legacy shines a brilliant beacon of pride for Native Americans and others around the globe.

Maria Tallchief (Osage Nation)

Maria Tallchief is widely considered to be America’s first prima-ballerina. 

Tallchief began dancing ballet at age three on the Osage Indian Reservation in Oklahoma (one of five girls who did so). She went on to train in Los Angeles before moving to New York City at the age of 17 to join the School of American Ballet. It was there she first caught the attention of the dance world when she filled in for a lead ballerina during a performance and wowed the audience and critics alike. 

In 1947, she became the first American ballerina to perform in the Paris Opera Ballet, for which she received rapturous reviews. Upon returning to New York, she was designated the lead ballerina for the newly formed New York City Ballet. She went on to serve as the artistic director of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet and the founder and artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet.

Tallchief’s dancing was characterized by her signature precision and athleticism. Her energy on stage was described as “palpable” and “electric,” and her skill as “virtuosic.” Throughout her career, she broke barrier after barrier, dancing in television and movies, including the wildly popular “Ed Sullivan Show.” In 1962, she performed black swan pas de deux for President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B Johnson. 

Tallchief is credited with elevating American ballet onto the world stage. Among her numerous honors, she s a member of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, a Kennedy Center Honors recipient, a National Medal for the Arts Recipient and posthumously inductee into the National Native American Hall of Fame.

Throughout her illustrious career, Tallchief maintained close ties with her Osage heritage and spoke out against portrayals of Native stereotypes. Early on, as her star began to rise, Tallchief was encouraged to “Russainize” her last name, though she refused. Additionally, she was heavily involved with Americans for Indian Opportunity and served as the director of the Indian Council Fire Achievement Award. 

Tallchief will be honored on an American Woman Quarter in 2023, one of a total of 20 specially designed quarters released from 2022-2025, celebrating American women for their contributions to culture. 

John Herrington (Chickasaw)

In 2002, John Herrington became the first ever enrolled tribal member to go to space.

Herington received his commission into the United States Navy in 1984 after earning a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of Colorado Springs. In 1996, he was recruited by NASA, where he was selected as a Mission Specialist for the sixteenth space Space Shuttle Mission to the International Space Station. The mission launched on Nov. 23, 2002. In a gesture of honoring his Chickasaw heritage, Herrington carried the tribe’s flag — which had been presented to him by Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubbym— on the 13-day trip to space. Herrington performed three spacewalks during the trip, totaling nearly 20 hours. 

In 2004, Herrington was commander of the NEEMO 6, a NASA Aquanet underwater laboratory, where he lived and worked underwater for ten days. After his 2005 retirement from the Navy and NASA, Herrington embarked on a cross-country bike ride from Washington to Florida over the course of three months in 2008. 

Herrington honors include Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation, Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation, Coast Guard Special Operations Service Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal and Sea Service Deployment Ribbons. 

In 2002, Herrington was inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame; in 2017 he was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame; and in 2018, he was an inductee in the first induction ceremony by the National Native American Hall of Fame. His 2002 spacewalks are commemorated on the 2019 Sacagawea dollar coin.

Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota)

At the center of one of the greatest Olympic underdog stories is Oglala Sioux tribe member Billy Mills.

When Mills took the gold in the 10,000-meter run in the 1964 Tokyo Games, he was a virtual unknown. Mill’s win marked the first time a non-European won the event. Today, he remains the only athlete from the Americas to win gold in the run. 

Mills grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation. Orphaned at the age of 12, he was raised by his older siblings until, at the age of 15, he attended Haskell Institute boarding school. It was at Haskell that Mills began to shine in track and field, winning national championships in cross-country.

During the 1962 Olympics, world record holder Ron Clarke (Australia) was slated as the favorite for the 10,000 meter race —  and Mills wasn’t considered one of the competitors that would challenge Clarke. When Mills pulled a head and took first during the last strides of the race, NBC announcer Dick Bank famously screamed, “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” — a display of excitement that later got Banks fired.

Mills finished the race in 28:24.4, nearly 50 seconds faster than he had ever run it before.

He went on to set a record for 10,000 m (28:17.6) and the three-mile run. The next year, in 1965, he both broke the world record for the six-mile run when they finished in a tie with Gerry Lindgren at the AAU National Championships. 

In 1986, Mills co-founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a nonprofit that supports programming to help Native communities meet their immediate needs while also driving long-term self-sufficiency. 

Mills is an inductee into the U.S. National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, and the National Distance Running Hall of Fame, among others. In 2014, Mills received the Presidential Citizens Medal from then-President Barak Obama. The 1983 sports drama “Runnig Brave” is based on Mills’ life.

Mary G. Ross (Cherokee Nation)

“Hidden figure” and trailblazer Mary Ross is considered the first Native American female engineer. She was a founding engineer of the aerospace company Lockheed’s high-secretive and renowned Skunk Works project, an endeavor that produced several benchmark airplane designs. Ross’ substantial contributions to aerospace engineering include design concepts for interplanetary space travel, crewed and uncrewed Earth-orbiting flights, the earliest studies of orbiting satellites for both defense and civilian purposes.

Ross grew up in Tahlequah, the Cherokee Nation’s capital. Ross was academically gifted and earned a bachelor’s in mathematics from Northeastern State Teachers' College and went on to earn a master's degree from Colorado State College of Education at Greeley. 

During WWII, she worked as a mathematician for Lockhead, where she solved numerous design issues on high-speed airplanes. In a move that was unheard of at the time, Lockheed continued to employ Ross after the war ended. She worked at the company until her retirement, 

Ross remained engaged with her Native roots and was a passionate advocate for young women and Indigenous youth to pursue engineering careers. She supported both the American Indians in Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes.

In 2004, at age 96, Ross participated in the opening ceremonies of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. She left the museum a $400,000 endowment upon her death in 2008.

In 2019, Ross was depicted on the Sacagawea Dollar.

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