Famous Native American Quotes: Analysis & Historical Background

Brief Historical Background

Chief Grey Owl

Long before the Western world set sail for uncharted waters, North America was populated by indigenous people who did not call themselves “Indian.” Rather, they would refer to themselves by their tribe name. Columbus stumbled upon America while seeking the East Indies. He called the people he met there “Indios,” or “Indian” when anglicized.

The tribal names by which they were known included Apache, Comanche, Black Foot, Seneca, Anasazi, and Paiute. The tribe known to us as Sioux was made up of three tribes, and the people referred to themselves as either Lakota, Dakota or Nakota. These and many other names have been relegated to the dusty annals of history such as the Taino natives of Puerto Rico.

Native Americans that still keep their culture and heritage alive through song, written word, food and customs can be found throughout Hawaii, the islands of Samoa and the continental United States. The Taos Pueblo of New Mexico have a strong, proud history, however, many other tribes in the continental U.S. have been lost forever due to genocide, assimilation and dispersion to arid lands that provided little to no sustenance to keep people strong and healthy.

Some Native Americans became famous historical figures because they fought hard against the Western invasion that assaulted their lands and decimated their people. They fought back and became ambassadors that negotiated treaties with the westerners only to see agreements broken time and again.

While some of the most famous quotes originated from the persistent disillusionment caused by broken promises, it is undeniable that the commentary is central to their values as Native Nations, shared values and respect for the land.

Quotes About The Land and Food

Indian Congress

What made some Native Americans famous? Were the inescapable historical battles that acknowledged their existence remembered just to glorify euro-centrist historical accounts? Were the Indians cited as central villains in countless movies of decades past featured simply to be the “bad guys” to the white men’s “good guys” in revisionist history? What about people who are famous today in a smaller circle of people, but well-regarded in Native American studies, and ardent advocates of restoring balance between the land, food and people?

One of the latter, John C. Mohawk, Ph.D. (1945-2006) is worthy of study. He was an associate professor of indigenous studies, columnist and award recipient of the American Journalism Association for Best Historical Perspective of Indigenous People. His quote below pertains to the study of disease in humans caused by artificial foods and added chemical ingredients.

“— a food that either does not appear in nature or is probably not intended for human consumption —”

We have heard variations on this theme from activists today that fight against genetically engineered foods and grains. It has become a mantra of advocates of healthy food to demand that chemicals are kept out of our daily staples.

Dr. Mohawk’s quote has branched out to encompass those who oppose genetic manipulation to force animals to yield greater amounts of meat or milk. A modern-day example is farm-raised salmon that is more aggressive but lacks the same nutritional value as the born-free cousins, or cows raised on growth hormones to produce greater amounts of milk.

Standing Bear – Ponca Indian Chief (1829-1908)

He was elected to the Nebraska Hall of Fame and many parks and bridges are named in his honor. Perhaps his most famous quote comes from his successful argument in a United States District Court in 1879. “An Indian is a person” — and entitled to habeas corpus — which literally means “you can have your body back” but in a court of law means that you, as a human being, cannot be held prisoner without legal cause.

Like all Native Americans, Standing Bear had respect for the land and observed the correlation between not caring and nurturing, and its effects on personality:

– “Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard.”

Getting back to the land is almost a natural ritual for people who are avid campers, hikers and explorers. There are many organizations that teach land stewardship and preservation who have taken their direction from studying Native American cultures.

Chief Luther Standing Bear – Oglagla Sioux

His quote reflects Native Americans view of the land and its inhabitants and how the Western culture viewed the same landscape through a different lens:

“We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild’. Only to the white man was nature a “wilderness” and only to him was the land “infested” with “wild” animals and “savage” people. To us it was tame.

Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it “wild” for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the “Wild West” began.”

From Round Valley Schools.

They Made Names For Themselves

Sitting Bull – Sioux Chief (1831-1890)

He is believed to have been the last Native American to surrender to the United States government after having fought valiantly to preserve the rights inherent to Native Americans.

There were bloody battles and violent confrontations throughout history and while Sitting Bull has been vilified in Western publications, the inescapable truth is that he did what brave leaders do when their way of life and lands are under attack by outside forces.

The following quotes are attributed to him when speaking about retaining his dignity and his land:

“If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place. He put in your heart certain wishes and plans, and in my heart he put other and different desires. It is not necessary for eagles to be crows.”

“We did not give you our lands, you stole them from us.”

“The earth has received the embrace of the sun and we shall see the results of that love.”

Crazy Horse

The following quote has been part of many Native Americans tribes but became associated with Crazy Horse because he used it during the battle against General Custer at Little Big Horn:

Today is a good day to die. Follow me!” Another famous quote is: “My lands are where my dead lie buried.

Sarah Winnemucca

Sarah Winnemucca – Paiute tribe of Nevada (1844-1891)

She learned to speak English quickly and became a translator and mediator between her people and the United States. She was a political activist for human rights, a lecturer, and the author of Life Among The Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims.

From her book on human rights and the treatment of Native Americans:

“For shame! For shame! You dare to cry out Liberty, when you hold us in places against our will, driving us from place to place as if we were beasts.”

“I would place all the Indians of Nevada on ships in our harbor, take them to New York and land them there as immigrants, that they might be received with open arms….”

“If women could go into your Congress, I think justice would soon be done to the Indians.”

The state of Nevada commissioned and donated a statute of Sarah Winnemucca to the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington D.C.

There are thousands of quotes from Native Americans that must be studied within the context of history to fully understand their meaning and the events that precipitated them. Other notable Native Americans: Geronimo and Matoaka (a.k.a. Pocahontas,) whose real story bears no resemblance to the Disney myth.