11 Indigenous Leaders You Should Know

Abenaki filmmaker and performer Alanis Obomsawin
Abenaki filmmaker and performer Alanis Obomsawin / Scott Gries/Getty Images

Whether in Peru, Brazil, Canada or the United States, Indigenous peoples have rich histories and knowledge that are increasingly endangered as colonial languages and cultures become the norm. Many Indigenous groups struggle to be legally recognized and gain equal rights as minorities in their respective countries.

Here's a list of Indigenous leaders—politicians, activists, linguists, teachers, and artists—working to preserve their heritage and secure the rights of their communities by bringing awareness to Indigenous issues.

1. Myrna Cunningham Kain

Myrna Cunningham Kain, a Miskito feminist and Indigenous rights activist, began her career as a teacher and later attended medical school at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, becoming the country’s first Miskito doctor. She practiced general medicine and surgery until 1979, and then served as the first female governor of the Miskito region, formerly known as the Region of North Atlantic Coast, in the 1980s. Among her achievements, Dr. Cunningham Kain has advocated for the rights of Indigenous people and women and awareness of climate change impacts on Indigenous communities. She has also represented Indigenous concerns as a leader of several United Nations committees.

2. Hilaria Supa Huamán

Hilaria Supa Huamán's early experiences of sexism, racism, and violence while she worked as a maid left her with lifelong arthritis and influenced her present political action. In 2006, she was elected to Peru's Congress and took her oath in Quechua, her primary language, an act that caused stoked anti-Indigenous sentiment among her peers. As a leader of the Women’s Federation of Anta, she openly criticized the modern effects of colonialism in Peru and encouraged the preservation of the ancient cultures of the Andes. She advocates for survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, and marginalized, poor Indigenous communities. In the 1990s, Huamán spoke out against the Peruvian government’s forced sterilization of Indigenous women [PDF].

3. Ofelia Zepeda

Ofelia Zepeda, a poet, activist, and liguist, co-founded and now leads the American Indian Language Development Institute, an organization dedicated to revitalizing Indigenous language use across generations. She teaches the Tohono O'odham language (of which she’s a fluent speaker) at the University of Arizona, where she’s the Regent’s professor of linguistics and affiliate faculty in American Indian studies. Zepeda even developed a grammar textbook in the language after finding out there were no materials for teaching it in schools. In addition to having published three books of poetry, Zepeda was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. a “Genius Grant”) in 1999 for her work to preserve American Indian languages.

4. Evo Morales

Former president of Bolivia Evo Morales
Former president of Bolivia Evo Morales / Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Images

Evo Morales, of the Aymara Indigenous group, was elected the first Indigenous president of Bolivia in 2006. He served for 14 years across three consecutive terms. Morales began his political career by leading the Coca Growers Union, the cocaleros, and advocating for the rights of coca farmers (coca is a traditional crop in Bolivia, as well as the raw material for cocaine). Under his administration, Indigenous groups were given an option to apply for political autonomy in their ancestral territories, giving the communities an opportunity for representation in government. He briefly decreased national poverty, grew the national economy, and allowed Indigenous coca farmers to continue their trade. But Morales resigned in 2019 after election irregularities led to national protests.

5. Ella Cara Deloria

Ella Cara Deloria, one of the first bilingual, bicultural anthropologists, was born on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1889. She was raised in the Lakota community and was fluent in the Dakota and Lakota dialects of the Sioux language. Her education took place at an Episcopal school and then Oberlin College. A meeting with the famous anthropologist Franz Boas while she attended Columbia University resulted in a 15-year collaboration studying Native American linguistics. She helped preserve records of the Sioux people and dialects through translation, oral histories, studies, and writing. Today, her work is still used to study Sioux culture, ethnography, and language.

6. Kent Monkman

Kent Monkman is a Cree multidisciplinary artist and one of the best-known Canadian artists today. His work observes historical and modern-day Indigenous experiences through the intersection of colonialism, sexuality, and the pliability of Native American culture. In many of his works, a gender fluid alter ego named Miss Chief Eagle Testickle appears in quasi-historical scenes to represent outsiders’ interpretations of Indigenous culture. His work has been displayed at major art museums nationally and internationally, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Canada. In his latest monumental painting, Welcoming the Newcomers (2019), Monkman confronts traditional depictions of Indigenous people by painting them as survivors and heroes.

7. Yaku Pérez

Cañari attorney and activist Yaku Pérez was the Indigenous party Pachakutik’s candidate in Ecuador's 2021 presidential election. He came in second place in a virtual tie with a conservative candidate; officials chose Pérez's opponent for the runoff election and Pérez dropped out of the race. Pérez’s candidacy was part of a wave of Indigenous leaders running for government positions in South America, and in the process, it brought awareness to issues that affect Indigenous communities in Ecuador. He has served in organizations to mobilize uprisings and has been arrested several times. He remains focused on advocating for the preservation of land and natural resources. His first name means “water” in Quechua.

8. Deb Haaland

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visits Yellowstone National Park.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visits Yellowstone National Park. / NPS/Jacob W. Frank, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Secretary Deb Haaland is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, a 35th-generation New Mexican, and the first Native American appointed in 2021 to the position of cabinet secretary in her role as the head of the Department of the Interior. The significance of Haaland’s leadership of the 172-year-old federal agency, known for facilitating the genocide of Native Americans, can’t be overstated. The Interior Department oversees half a billion acres of public lands; within the agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs holds over 55 million acres in trust for Native use and serves 574 federally recognized Native American tribes. Prior to being appointed by President Joe Biden, Haaland served as one of the first two Native American women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and in New Mexico's state government.

9. Aritana Yawalapiti

Aritana Yawalapiti was an influential chief and revered leader of the Yawalapiti tribe inside Brazil's Xingu Indigenous Park, a 6.5 million-acre park established in 1961 to protect the tribes in the area. In fact, he helped create it. Today it serves as a home to 16 groups and about 7500 Indigenous people. Aritana taught the history of the Yawalapiti, which traces back to 1100 CE in the region, and supported the preservation of land, cultural heritage, education, and access to health resources. Sadly, Aritana—one of the last speakers of the Yawalapiti language—was among more than 170 indigenous leaders in Brazil who have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

10. Alanis Obomsawin

Alanis Obomsawin's last name means "pathfinder,” an apt description of her work as a singer, filmmaker, multimedia artist, and storyteller. A member of the Abenaki Nation, Obomsawin grew up on the Odanak reserve in Quebec, Canada. While serving as a consultant on First Nations-related projects at the National Film Board of Canada, she made her first documentary, Christmas at Moose Factory, in 1971. Her 50-plus films continue to address the challenges faced by First Nations people; one of her best-known documentaries, Richard Cardinal: Cry from a Diary of a Métis Child (1986), tackles a teenager’s suicide. The film shined a spotlight on the foster care system in Alberta and its mistreatment of Indigenous children. Obomsawin has performed and exhibited her work in major museums [PDF] and festival in North America and Europe, and received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 2008.

11. Dennis Banks

Ojibwe civil rights activist Dennis Banks, born on the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota in 1937, led often-violent demonstrations against the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Native Americans during the 1960s and 1970s. After serving a prison sentence for burglary, he founded the American Indian Movement with other Native American activists in 1968. The group launched highly publicized campaigns to force attention on Native issues, including the 71-day armed occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973 to confront federal violations of treaties with Indigenous governments. In the late 1970s, Banks turned toward more peaceful actions and organized The Longest Walk, a five-month march from California to Washington, D.C. to foster awareness of Native rights.