Famous Native American Chiefs

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13140

They fought to keep their lands and protect their people. Meet Chief Joseph, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, and Quanah Parker. You can interview one of them and watch some great movie clips!


United States

learning style
Auditory, Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Do you recognize these Native American or Indigenous American leaders pictured below?
  • Can you match the name with the image?

Choose from the following men.

Chief Joseph

Sitting Bull

Quanah Parker


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  • Did you know that one famous Native American leader refused to be photographed or have his portrait painted?
  • Can you guess who it was?

Each of these Native American chiefs was different and made different choices, but they all lived and died with a great love of their land and their people.

Some famous Indigenous American leaders fought for their land until all other options were gone, surrendering in exhaustion and despair. Others were killed in battle or murdered. And some thought it better to make peace and save their people from more suffering.

In this lesson, you'll watch several videos to learn about a few Native chiefs and leaders. As you watch the videos, take notes on their tribes, homelands, accomplishments, and the circumstances of their deaths. You'll use this information later in the Got It? section.

Crazy Horse

"Hoka-Hey! This is a good day to die!"

~ Crazy Horse, before the Battle of Little Bighorn

Crazy Horse was the chief who never allowed his picture to be taken, so we don't have any images of him.

He was the war leader of a Lakota (Sioux) band called the Oglala Lakota. They lived in what is now the Black Hills of South Dakota.

He fought to keep white settlers out of the Black Hills (He Sapa in their language), which the Lakota considered their sacred land. He fought in several battles, including the Battle of Little Bighorn, where he led the Native warriors to victory.

Learn more about Crazy Horse in the following video segments. (Many historians say that the photo in the video is not a picture of Crazy Horse.)

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Chief Joseph

Photo of Joseph taken in November 1877

"I will fight no more forever."

~ Chief Joseph, when he surrendered to the U.S. Army

Chief Joseph was the leader of a band of Nez Perce who lived in the Wallowa Valley of Oregon. He was an intelligent and peaceful man. 2

He saw the American Army's strength and knew it was useless to fight them. He kept trying to move his people away from harm, but circumstances forced him into the fight.

So he fought bravely for a long time until he finally surrendered because his people were freezing and starving.

Learn more about Chief Joseph by watching another video segment.

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  • How was Chief Joseph drawn into fighting the Army?

Listen to Chief Joseph's sad words of surrender in this clip from the movie I Will Fight No More Forever.

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Geronimo (Goyaa?é), a Chiricahua Apache, kneeling with rifle, 1887

"I should never have surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive."

~ Geronimo, shortly before his death

Geronimo was not an official Apache chief, but he was a strong leader, a fierce warrior, and a medicine man. He joined with other Apache bands to fight off the Mexican and American military.

As you watch the video segment about Geronimo, notice how many times Geronimo surrendered to the government only to escape again!

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  • Do you think President Roosevelt should have given Geronimo his wish?

Quanah Parker

*Quanah Parker

Quanah Parker's mother was a white woman kidnapped by the Comanche sometime between the ages of 8 and 11. His father was a Comanche chief.

Like Geronimo, Quanah was not an elected chief of the Comanche but was an important leader. He led them as they fought to keep their lands, the wide plains of Oklahoma and Texas. He recruited warriors from other tribes to fight with him.

After their surrender, he helped his people adjust to their new life by adopting American ways.

As you watch the final video segment below, think about Quanah's choices.

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  • Do you think Quanah made wise decisions?
  • What would you have done in his situation?
  • Why did some Indigenous Americans call him a traitor?

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull, 1883

"The warrior is not someone who fights, because no one has the right to take another life. The warrior, for us, sacrifices himself for the good of others."

~ Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull led the Hunkpapa band of Lakota (Sioux). He was born in the Grand River Valley in what is now South Dakota.

As a child, he wanted to be like his father, an honored Lakota warrior. By the age of 10, he had killed his first buffalo. By 14, he had fought in a battle against another tribe.

When gold was discovered on the Sioux lands, the government returned its treaty with its people and allowed settlers to enter. He vowed to keep his people free and to never live on a reservation.

At 37, he became the chief of the Lakota. After leading warriors in battle at Rosebud and Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull found himself and his people pursued by the Army.

Watch what happened next, from the movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, when Sitting Bull met with an army colonel (Col. Nelson Miles) before a skirmish (a small battle) in Cedar Creek, Montana.

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That was an interesting argument.

  • Do you agree with Sitting Bull or Col. Miles?
  • Is it possible that both men could be right?

Soon after this, Sitting Bull decided to lead his people to Canada. When he returned a few years later, he was imprisoned and sent to a reservation.

Learn more about Sitting Bull's leadership ability in this Sitting Bull | Spiritual Leader and Military Leader Video.

In 1890, Sitting Bull supported natives participating in Ghosts Dances, which were dances meant to bring back the buffalo, make white men go away, and bring back dead Native Americans. Because of this, the Indian police came to his cabin on the reservation to arrest him.

During an altercation, a shot was fired from an unknown source. The soldiers then opened fire on the Native Americans killing 150 of them, mostly women and children.

As you've seen, these Native American leaders tried to accomplish almost impossible tasks: to keep their lands and their freedom and peace with the settlers and the Army.

You may have found these stories rather sad, but they're important to learn. They remind us that respect for everyone is a basic part of good government. The times when we've forgotten that have been the worst in our history.

  • Did you write down some facts about the chiefs?

Great! Head over to the Got It? section, where you'll organize your information and create a life timeline for one of the chiefs!

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