6 Great Native American Chiefs and Leaders

For those of us who live in the United States – and perhaps those who don’t – you have undoubtedly heard about many historical figures and heroes. Sadly, the same cannot be said about Native American historical figures and heroes. There are many Americans who don’t know very much about Native American history.

The famous Indian chiefs from America are too often forgotten when they should be revered as heroes. For some reason, being a great Indian chief wasn’t quite good enough.

With that, let us briefly examine some of Native Americans ’ great chief leaders.

6 Native American Chiefs

geronimo-Geronimo – Perhaps among one of the most popular Native American chiefs ever, Geronimo was actually a medicine man who came from the Bedonkohe band of the Chiricahua tribe. He was born in the year 1829 and became acclimated very rapidly to the Apache ways of life. As a boy, Geronimo swallowed the entire heart of the kill he made while hunting and, by age 18, led as many as four separate raids. Just like his people, he greatly suffered at the hands of “civilized” folks who invaded their lands. The Mexicans, who at the time controlled the lands around them, murdered his wife and his three young children. Even though he hated Americans passionately, he carried a deep-seated hatred for the Mexicans as long as he lived.

In 1848, Mexico gave up control of large areas of land, including the Apache territories, during the Treaty Agreement of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This brought on constant conflicts among the tribes living on the land and new Americans trying to settle there. As with many tribes, Geronimo and his tribe were eventually moved off the lands of their ancestors. They were then put on a reservation of barren land located in Arizona. This was something that this great leader resented deeply. Over the next decade, he led numerous successful breakouts and was chased constantly by the US Army. Needless to say, he was seen as a celebrity for all of his daring escapes, much to the delight of those who loved the Wild West.

He finally surrendered on September 4, 1886, following several different imprisonments. Right before he died, Geronimo pled his tribe’s case before President Theodore Roosevelt but failed to persuade the American leader to let his people return to their homes. He died in 1909 after an accident on his horse. He was certainly one of the great Indian chiefs.

crazy horseCrazy Horse – A great warrior from the Oglala Sioux, Crazy Horse was believed to have been born in the year 1840 in South Dakota. Legend has it that his name was given to him by his father to reflect as fighting skills. Tensions among the Sioux and the Americans had only increased since his birth, but tensions boiled over after he became a young teenager. In August of 1854, the Sioux chief who was named Conquering Bear, was murdered by a white soldier. In the act of revenge, the Sioux tribesmen killed the commanding officer and 30 of his soldiers in what is now called the Grattan Massacre.

Using his skills and knowledge as an accomplished guerilla fighter, Crazy Horse became a thorn in the butt of the US Army, who stopped at nothing in trying to force the Sioux onto a reservation. By far the most popular battle in that Crazy Horse took part was the legendary Battle of the Little Bighorn, where General Custer and his soldiers were soundly defeated. However, during the following year, Crazy Horse surrendered. The scorched-earth approach of the US Army proved way too much for his tribe to withstand. During captivity, Crazy Horse was allegedly stabbed to death while planning to escape. He was also considered one of the great Indian chiefs. 

chief seattleChief Seattle – Born in the year 1790, Chief Seattle came from the state of Washington and lived around Puget Sound. He was actually the chief of two different tribes, and at first, he peacefully welcomed settlers who began arriving during the 1850s. As a matter of fact, they created a colony on Elliot Bay and even named it after this great tribal leader. But several of the local tribes deeply resented this invasion by the Americans. Then violent conflicts started to occur periodically, which resulted in a full-blown attack on the colony of Seattle.

Chief Seattle had long felt that his people would probably get driven out by the new settlers, but he pointed out any violence would only exacerbate the process; this sentiment seemed to calm down the tribe. The great chief ultimately converted to Christianity and became a devout follower until he died. As a respectful acknowledgment of the chief’s traditional religion, the people who lived in Seattle all paid a small tax to keep using his name for the city. He was definitely one of the famous Native American chiefs.

cochiseCochise – Practically nothing at all is known about the early life and childhood of perhaps the greatest Apache chiefs in Native American history. No historian even knows the exact year he was born. He was tall for his day, standing about 6 feet tall, an imposing figure. As the leader of his Chiricahua tribe, Cochise led his warriors on many different raids, sometimes against the Americans and sometimes against the Mexicans. But it was the attacks on the Americans that led to his undoing.

In the year 1861, a raiding party from a different Apache tribe kidnapped a child. Cochise’s tribe got the blame for the kidnapping by an inexperienced US Army officer. Even though they were completely innocent, there was an attempt to arrest the Native Americans, who came to talk, but things end violently, with one death. Cochise escaped the meeting tent through a hole he had cut in the side.

More violence was ensured as executions and acts of torture were conducted by both sides, and this violence appeared to have no end in sight. At the time, the Civil War had started, and for the time being, the Apache had been left alone in Arizona.

However, in less than a year, the Army returned with howitzers and started destroying all the tribes there were still fighting. Cochise and his band of warriors hid in the mountains for almost a decade, raiding when they needed to and eluding capture. Finally, Cochise received an offer for a large part of Arizona in a reservation. He accepted the offer but later became very ill and passed away in 1874. His people considered him one of the great Native American leaders.

sitting BullSitting Bull – A chief and holy man from the Hunkpapa Lakota, Sitting Bull was born in 1831 in South Dakota. He instantly became a great warrior, going out on his very first raid at the young age of 14. His initial encounter with US troops came in the year 1863. It was his bravery that earned for him the title of chief for all the Lakota during the year 1868. Over the next decade, numerous small conflicts ensued between the Lakota and US troops. However, in 1874 a full-scale war erupted between the two because gold had been discovered in the sacred Black Hills in South Dakota. In reality, these lands had previously been off-limits to white people because of an earlier treaty, but the US ignored the treaty after repeated attempts to buy this land were declined.

This escalation of violence eventually led to the previously mentioned Battle of the Little Bighorn. After this famous battle, more and more armies came to the area. Tribe after the tribe was forced to surrender, and Sitting Bull escaped to Canada. The starvation of people led to a hasty agreement with the US, which led them to a reservation. When fears had been raised that Sitting Bull had joined in a religious movement called the Ghost Dance, a ceremony that would supposedly rid all the lands of white people, orders were issued for his arrest. A gunfight between his supporters and law enforcement soon erupted, and sadly, Sitting Bull was killed after he was shot in the head. One of the most popular among the great Native American chiefs.

mangas-coloradasMangas Coloradas – As Cochise’s father-in-law and perhaps even the most influential chief during the 1800s, Mangas Coloradas was an Apache. Born prior to the turn eighteenth century, he was very tall and became the tribal leader in the year 1837, immediately following the death of his predecessor and many warriors within the band. All of them died since Mexico offered cash for the scalps of Native Americans with no questions asked. Refusing to let those atrocities go unpunished, Mangas Coloradas and his band started wreaking havoc and even killing every citizen in Santa Rita town.

After the US declared war against Mexico, Mangas Coloradas viewed them as the saviors of his people, and he signed a treaty to allow American soldiers to pass through their Apache lands. However, as was always the case in those days, the treaty was quickly broken whenever silver and gold were discovered on their lands. By the year 1863, the US flew a truce flag in an attempt to make peace with the great chief. But they betrayed him, killed him under the pretense that he had tried to escape, and even mutilated his body after his death. Asa Daklugie, who was the blood nephew of Geronimo, has said that this heinous act with the last straw as far as the Apache was concerned, and they started mutilating every white person who was unlucky enough to cross their paths.

Final Thoughts

Determining the greatest Indian chief in American history is a difficult task. After all, each Indian chief had their own unique style of leadership and faced different challenges in their lifetime. Some chiefs were known for being successful warriors and skilled negotiators, while others were respected for being wise leaders and inspiring spiritual figures. What makes one great leader stand out from the others is hard to define, as they all have made incredible contributions to Native American culture, politics, and society.

The accomplishments of some notable Indian Chiefs include Tecumseh’s efforts to unite dozens of tribes against the expansion of settlers into tribal lands, Crazy Horse’s victory at Little Bighorn against U.S Army forces, and even Red Cloud’s diplomatic negotiations with government officials. All of these individuals played an important role in shaping the destiny of Native Americans and American history as a whole.

Each chief and their individual stories must be taken into consideration when determining a great Indian chief in American history. While it is not possible to pick just one, each leader’s influence and impact on their people, tribes, and culture should be measured in order to evaluate who has had the most significant legacy. As such, although it may be difficult to determine the greatest Indian Chief in American History, evaluating the contributions of all leaders can help us better understand and appreciate their inspiring legacies.