More than 370 million Indigenous people live in places like the Arctic, the Americas, Europe, Australia, Africa, and Asia. What does it mean to be Indigenous? Indigenous individuals experience their identity in different ways, but speaking broadly, the United Nations defines Indigenous peoples as “inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment” with distinct social, cultural, economic, and political traits. While Indigenous peoples lived in an area first, they often (though not always) represent a minority population. Past and present injustices like colonialism, slavery, and discrimination have disrupted and destroyed many Indigenous communities, making Indigenous rights a pressing social justice issue. Whether it’s preserving languages and culture or advocating for environmental justice and human rights, Indigenous communities from around the world have a long history of activism. Here are 15 inspiring quotes from Indigenous leaders, writers, activists, and others:
“Show respect to all people, but grovel to none.” – Tecumseh
Tecumseh (1768-1813) was a Shawnee warrior and chief who resisted the expansion of the United States. He was famous for his speaking skills and formed a Native American confederacy that sought to preserve Native lands. During his life, Tecumseh was respected even by those who fought against him, but he became even more famous as a folk hero in American, Indigenous, and Canadian history. Because of his mythological status, it’s difficult to authenticate many parts of Tecumseh’s life.
“If we must die, we die defending our rights.” – Sitting Bull
Sitting Bull (1831-1890) is one of the most famous Indigenous leaders in history. As a Hunkpapa Lakota leader, he resisted government policies and fought for Native rights. After years of evading capture and struggling with starvation, Sitting Bull eventually surrendered. He worked at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, where he became a celebrity. When he returned home, government authorities grew fearful of the Ghost Dance movement, a religious movement that promised the renewal of the earth, resurrections, and an end to oppression. Because of Sitting Bull’s influence, police tried to arrest him and prevent him from joining the movement, but he was killed instead. His remains are buried at Mobridge, South Dakota, his birthplace.
“It does not require many words to speak the truth.” – Chief Joseph
Chief Joseph (1840-1904) was a leader of the Wal-lam-wat-kain (Wallowa) band of Nez Perce, a tribe from the interior Pacific Northwest. When the United States forcibly removed the tribe from their lands in Oregon to a reservation in the Idaho territory, Chief Joseph resisted. After his eventual surrender, Chief Joseph traveled the country, giving speeches about the injustices inflicted on his people and hoping they could return to their lands. He died in 1904.
“Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking.” – Black Elk
Black Elk (also known as Heȟáka Sápa) was a medicine man from the Oglala Lakota people. Alongside Crazy Horse, he fought in the Battle of Little Bighorn. He also survived the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and performed in Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. As a spiritual leader, Black Elk’s work focused on teaching tourists about Lakota rituals and culture. Black Elk Speaks, which was published in 1932 by John Neihardt, records Black Elk’s life and religious views, as well as his dreams and visions.
“That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain. The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a Man.” – Standing Bear
Standing Bear (1829-1908) was the leader of a small group of Poncha people. In 1876, the US government told them to move to Indian Territory in Oklahoma, but the Ponca decided to go back to their traditional land instead. When they arrived, federal troops forced them to leave. The trip was brutal, costing many their lives, including Standing Bear’s wife and daughter. After arriving in Oklahoma, Standing Bear’s son died. They turned back, wanting to bury the body on their land, but the US government caught up and detained them. In court, the government argued that Standing Bear was “neither a citizen, nor a person,” which meant he couldn’t sue. Standing Bear’s lawyers argued the opposite, and when given a chance to speak, Standing Bear spoke the quote above. The judge sided with Standing Bear, allowing him to bury his son and ruling that Native Americans were people under habeas corpus, which is the right to report unlawful detention.
“He who stands lives; he who sits perishes.” – Māori proverb
The Māori are the Indigenous people from mainland New Zealand. They are descendants of settlers from East Polynesia, who traveled to New Zealand by canoe between 1320-1350. According to a 2018 census, the Māori make up 16.5% of the national population, making them the second-largest ethnic group in the country. Colonialism sought to destroy the Māori people and culture, but protest movements and laws have helped improve things, though tensions and oppression remain.
“We as Aboriginal people still have to fight to prove that we are straight out plain human beings, the same as everyone else’” – Neville Bonner
An elder of the Jagera people, Neville Bonner was the first Aboriginal Australian to become a member of Australia’s Parliament. An independent thinker, he often faced criticism from left-wing Indigenous activists. The pressure of being the first Indigenous person in Parliament was also challenging. In 1981, Bonner was the only vote opposing drilling in the Great Barrier Reef. He died in 1999.
“The secret of our success is that we never, never give up.” – Wilma Mankiller
Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010) was a Native American activist, community organizer, and social worker. She was the first woman elected as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. In 1985, she worked in the federal administration of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where under her leadership, the Cherokee government established new health clinics, early and adult education programs, and more. After her political career, she continued working as an advocate for women’s health, tribal sovereignty, and cancer awareness. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.
“Things which do not grow and change are dead things.” – Louise Erdrich
Considered one of the most important writers of the second wave of the Native American Renaissance, Louise Erdich is the author of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and children’s books. She has numerous awards and nominations. In 2021, her book The Night Watchman won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians.
“We are what we imagine. Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves. Our best destiny is to imagine, at least, completely, who and what, and that we are. The greatest tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined.”- N. Scott Momaday
Momaday is a Kiowa writer and poet. In 1969, his novel House Made of Dawn – which is considered the first major work of the Native American Renaissance – won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He holds many honorary degrees and awards, including the National Medal of Arts. Most of Momaday’s work fuses prose and poetry. As a professor, Momaday specializes in American Indian oral traditions and culture.
“Our history is a living history, that has throbbed, withstood and survived many centuries of sacrifice. Now it comes forward again with strength. The seeds, dormant for such a long time, break out today with some uncertainty, although they germinate in a world that is at present characterized by confusion and uncertainty.” – Rigoberta Menchú Tum
Rigoberta Menchú Tum is a K’iche’ Guatemalan feminist, activist, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. The quote above comes from her acceptance speech in 1992. She is known for advocating for the rights of Guatemala’s Indigenous people and Indigenous people globally. She founded the country’s first Indigenous political party, which is called Winaq, and ran for president in 2007 and 2011.
“History is a narrative; it’s a collection of stories sanctioned by the ruling power, and reinforced through words and images that suit them. That was the whole point of taking on history painting: to authorize these moments that have been swept under the rug for generations.” – Kent Monkman
Kent Monkman is a Canadian First Nations artist and member of the Fish River Band. According to his website, he is known for “provocative interventions into Western European and American art history,” where he works with themes like loss, colonization, resilience, and sexuality. His gender-fluid alter ego – a supernatural, shape-shifting figure called Miss Chief Eagle Testickle – is a frequent figure in his work. Monkman’s quote on history comes from a 2017 Toronto Star article covering the artist’s Toronto exhibit Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, a nine-part work that challenges art’s representation of the past.
“I promised myself a long time ago that I would lead an interesting life.” – Sacheen Littlefeather
Sacheen Littlefeather (Marie Louise Cruz) is an American model, actress, and Indigenous rights activist. She first became involved in activism during the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz. In 1973, during the 45th Academy Awards, she represented Marlon Brando and refused the Oscar for The Godfather as a protest against Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans and to raise awareness of the standoff at Wounded Knee. She went on to become active in California’s Native American community, working in health, media, and more.
“I release you, my beautiful and terrible fear. I release you. You were my beloved and hated twin, but now, I don’t know you as myself.” – Joy Harjo
A musician and three-time poet laureate of the United States (and the first Native American in that role), Joy Harjo is the author of nine poetry books, two memoirs, plays, and more. She has a long list of honors and honorary doctorates. A member of the Muscogee Nation (Este Mvskokvlke), Harjo is an important figure in Native American art. Her work explores themes like human connection, suffering, music, myths, and memory.
“We only have one earth. Let’s take care of it.” – Deb Haaland
Deb Haaland is an American politician and enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. She served in Congress as a representative and in 2021, she became the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary when she was sworn in as Secretary of the Interior. Her tenure so far has included the announcement of a unit to address the crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans and the creation of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which will investigate historical abuse.