Native American trailblazers
 

Notable Native American Firsts

7 men and women and their pioneering roles in U.S. government

November is National Native American Heritage Month, a time to pay tribute to the rich contributions of Native Americans to our country. To celebrate, we’re highlighting seven men and women who captured firsts in top state and federal government roles, paving the way for others to follow.

First U.S. Army General

Ely Samuel Parker

Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca Indian and trained attorney, rose to military prominence during the Civil War, eventually serving as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary and trusted adviser. When the Confederates surrendered at Appomattox Court House, VA in 1865, Parker helped to draft the terms of surrender for Gen. Robert E. Lee to sign. Parker was bestowed a brevet commission as brigadier general that same day, April 9, 1865.

According to his 1919 biography, Parker recounted to his family and friends his introduction to Lee at Appomattox Court House: “After Lee had stared at me for a moment, he extended his hand and said, ‘I am glad to see one real American here.’ I shook his hand and said, ‘We are all Americans.’”

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First Vice President, Senator, and Member of the U.S. House of Representatives

Charles Brent Curtis

Curtis captured three firsts: the first tribe-registered Native American to serve in each chamber of Congress and the first and only Native American vice president. A member of the Kaw Nation, Curtis’ federal service spanned four decades. He spent seven terms as a Kansas representative in the U.S. House (1893-1907) and 20 years in the U.S. Senate (1907-1913, 1915-1929). In March 1929, he was sworn in as vice president to Herbert Hoover.

“I have great faith,” Curtis said in 1932, during the Great Depression, “in the present and future of our wonderful country. We never had greater or more resourceful men and women than we have today, and I am sure they will change the present times into prosperity.”

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First Governor

Johnston Murray

Murray, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, was born in the Chickasaw governor’s mansion in 1902. His mother was a Chickasaw citizen and niece of the Chickasaw governor, Murray’s namesake, Douglas H. Johnston. In 1950, Murray was elected to serve as Oklahoma’s 14th governor, an office his father held 20 years earlier. Prior to becoming governor, Murray served in several local government positions.

“Keep on doing the things you don’t have to do,” Murray said in a 1960 speech to a Kiwanis Club in Oklahoma City. Only in this way, he said, can a person really accomplish something.

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First Female Federal Judge

Diane Humetewa

In 2013, President Barack Obama nominated Humetewa, a member of the Hopi Tribe, to serve as a judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. She dedicated her career to improving access to justice for Native Americans and across tribal lands, first as counsel to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and later as a U.S. attorney in Arizona.

In a 2021 interview, Humetewa said: “I was usually the only ‘Native’ in the office, the courtroom, or seated at the conference table. For me, the only way to overcome the insecurities and the demands of such situations was to focus on the work at hand and to think about who may benefit from it.”

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First U.S. Ambassador

Keith Harper

A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Harper was appointed by President Barack Obama as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council, serving from 2014 to 2017. Before his ambassadorship, he worked as an attorney, focusing on Native American affairs.

“I decided the best way to serve Indian country was to work in Indian law,” Harper said in a 2007 interview with NYU Law, his alma mater. “I find it heartening that many Indian people choose to work for our tribes or tribal organizations.”

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First Female Member of the U.S. House of Representatives

Sharice Davids

On Jan. 3, 2019, Sharice Davids of Kansas was sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress. She shares this honor with Deb Haaland from New Mexico, who was sworn in on the same day. A member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Davids previously worked in economic and community development on Native American reservations.

“I realize it's not that I was lucky that they selected me,” Davids said at a speech at the University of Kansas in 2019, “it’s that people like me absolutely should be in the room. We have to be in the room because if we're not, then whole communities get left out of conversations.”

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First Cabinet Secretary and First Female Member of the U.S. House of Representatives

Deb Haaland

Haaland became President Joe Biden’s secretary of the interior in 2021. Prior to her cabinet role, in 2019, she was one of the first Native American women (along with Sharice Davids) to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. She is from New Mexico and a member of the Pueblo Laguna.

During her 2021 confirmation hearing, Haaland said, “I carry my life experiences with me everywhere I go. It’s those experiences that give me hope for the future. If an Indigenous woman from humble beginnings can be confirmed as secretary of the interior, our country holds promise for everyone.”

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