Native changemakers

December 3, 2012

A new book written for middle-school students--101 Changemakers: Rebels and Radicals Who Changed U.S. History, edited by Michele Bollinger and Dao X. Tran--offers a "peoples' history" of some of the individuals who shaped this country. In the place of founding fathers, presidents and titans of industry, 101 Changemakers includes profiles of people who fought courageously for social justice. Every "changemaker" is remembered with a short biography and timeline of their life, plus suggestions for more to do and questions to consider. is publishing excerpts from 101 Changemakers all week. Today's focus is Native Americans.


(ca. 1827-1909)

Geronimo was a Chiricahua Apache. He led a struggle against Mexico and the United States to defend the Apaches' land and way of life after 1850.

The Apache lived in what is today the southwestern United States. Geronimo's people grew corn, hunted wild game, and gathered wild fruits and nuts. For generations, the Spanish captured and sold Apache people into slavery. They offered gold to anyone who killed an Apache. These attacks drove the Apaches into the mountains. When they were short of supplies they raided Spanish settlements.

Once, when Geronimo and other members of his tribe were trading in a Mexican town, soldiers attacked the Apache camp near the town and killed Geronimo's wife and three small children. Geronimo appealed to other Native nations to help him to seek justice. He led his fellow warriors on an attack that wiped out a large group of Mexican soldiers.

After a war with Mexico that ended in 1848, the United States claimed the Southwest. Relations with the new white intruders were friendly at first, but turned sour. Eager for land and gold, the government in Washington sent soldiers to force the Apache bands to give up their lands.

In 1860, the great Chiricahua Apache chief Mangas Coloradas went to a gold mining camp to talk peace. The miners tied him to a tree and lashed him with bullwhips. Mangas began leading attacks on white settlements.

In the following year, the Chiricahua Apache chief Cochise, along with his wife, young son, brother, and two nephews, came to parley with American troops. The commanding officer accused Cochise of kidnapping a white boy. Cochise had not taken the boy, but the whites did not believe him. He escaped from the soldiers by cutting a hole through a tent. Then the soldiers hung his brother and his two nephews. "After this trouble," Geronimo recalled, "all of the Indians agreed not to be friendly with the white men any more."

A few years later, General Joseph R. West's volunteer forces lured Mangas into their camp under a flag of truce and then shot him. At the same time, soldiers attacked and destroyed Mangas's camps. Geronimo called this "the greatest wrong ever done to the Indians." In retaliation, the Chiricahua Apaches killed many white settlers and then retreated into the mountains.

Constantly on the run, the Apaches couldn't survive. Thousands were forced onto the San Carlos reservation in Arizona in 1876. Geronimo fled San Carlos, escaping into Mexico and eluding troops for many years. Scouts discovered his refuge and he agreed to go back to the reservation in 1884. He escaped again for one last time the next year.

General Miles promised that Geronimo and his people could live at the San Carlos reservation. Instead, he and hundreds of other Chiricahua Apaches were imprisoned in Florida. Geronimo was held prisoner for twenty-three years until his death in 1909. He told General Miles, the day he gave himself up, "Once I moved about like the wind."
-- Paul D'Amato

ca. 1827–29: Geronimo (whose original name was Goyahkla, meaning "one who yawns") is born in what is today southwestern Arizona

1837: Mexican State of Chihuahua offers $100 for an Apache warrior's scalp, $50 for a woman's, and $25 for a child's

1850: Slaughter of Geronimo's family, along with many others, by Mexican soldiers

1850: Leads an attack on Mexican soldiers; gets name "Geronimo"

1863: January 18, Mangas Coloradas is captured and killed by U.S. soldiers

1871: Congress votes to give $70,000 for "collecting the Apaches of Arizona and New Mexico upon reservations"; Apaches who refuse to move are to be considered "hostile"

1876: Thousands of Chiricahua Apaches move to San Carlos; Geronimo settles on reservation but escapes to freedom several times

1886: Surrenders to General Miles

1909: Dies and is buried in the Apache cemetery in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Sitting Bull

(cc. 1831-1890)

Sitting Bull was a great leader of the Lakota Nation. He remains an important symbol for Native American resistance to the U.S. conquest of the North American continent.

In the area that is now South Dakota, Sitting Bull was born into a leading Hunkpapa Lakota family. As a very young man, his father gave him the name Tatanka-Iyotanka (Sitting Bull), which reflected his bravery and reliability.

Between 1850 and 1890, U.S. society experienced enormous growth. New businesses took over land in the West in order to build railroads and mine for gold and other minerals. White settlers moved west with them--into the lands of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho peoples. The U.S. Army used brutal force against the Native Americans to push them out of the way. This led to war.

Native leaders like Sitting Bull courageously defended their people. In 1866, the Oglala Lakota chief Red Cloud led Native American warriors in an attack on U.S. Army forts and settlers on the lands around the upper Missouri River. Another Lakota leader, Crazy Horse, won an important victory at the Battle of One Hundred Slain. This war ended when the U.S. government signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which granted a 25-millionacre territory to the Sioux Indians and set aside millions more acres as hunting grounds.

The most important part of the treaty was a promise that the Black Hills, an area that is holy to the Lakota people, was to be theirs forever. The Lakota wished to live peacefully on the same lands where their people had been for generations. But the United States did not want to honor the treaty. Mining companies believed there was gold in the Black Hills and they wanted it. They tried to convince the Lakota to sell their land.

The Lakota did not want to sell their land. In fact, the idea of selling the land was alien to them. Sitting Bull spoke about the difference in values between Native tribes and American society, saying that "the love of possessions is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break, but the poor may not. . . . They claim this mother of ours, the Earth, for their own use, and fence their neighbors away from her, and deface her with their buildings and their refuse."

Time and time again, Sitting Bull refused to agree to the sale of Lakota land. When U.S. officials could not convince the Lakota to sell, war broke out again. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse led Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors in a strong victory over the 7th Calvary of the U.S. Army in the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876. The U.S. Army was shocked that they lost and sought harsher revenge. U.S. officials captured Native American leaders and arrested them. Sitting Bull was able to escape.

A few years later, he returned to defend his people once again. In 1890, the U.S. Army was worried that Sitting Bull might help lead a new war against white settlers in order to protect the Lakota way of life. Instead of recognizing the rights of the Lakota, the U.S. government resorted to violence once again. On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was killed by one of the dozens of Indian Affairs policemen sent by the U.S. government to arrest him.
-- Michele Bollinger

ca. 1831: Born in what is now South Dakota

1845: Granted name "Sitting Bull" by his father

1866: Red Cloud's War begins

1868: Fort Laramie Treaty is signed; Black Hills granted to the Lakota "exclusively" and "in perpetuity"; Great Sioux Reservation is established

1874: General George Armstrong Custer leads campaign for gold into the Black Hills in violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty

1876: June 25, the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho defeat the United States at the Battle of Little Big Horn

1877: May 5, Crazy Horse meets with U.S. officials

1877: September 5, Crazy Horse is killed in U.S. custody

1881: July 19, returns to U.S. from Canada; detained by U.S. officials

1883: May, returns to Standing Rock

1884: Participates in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show; returns to Standing Rock

1890: Lends support to Ghost Dance movement; December 15, taken prisoner and killed; December 26, 7th Calvary of the U.S. Army kills three hundred unarmed Lakota at the Wounded Knee Massacre

Further Reading

From the archives