Celebrating American Indian & Alaska Native Heritage Month

Native American Women who are former debaters in a tiled collage

In continuing our series on Favorite Former Debaters, we’re celebrating American Indian & Alaska Native Heritage Month. These women stood out as accomplished leaders and communicators. Did you know these powerful women got their start on the debate team? See the 10 biographies below to learn more about their advocacy and their experiences in debate.

Ada Deer

Born in Kenosha, WI as a member of the Menominee tribe, she went on to lead “a lifetime of firsts”: she became the first member of the Menominee to graduate from UW–Madison, receiving her bachelor’s in social work. In 1961, she went on to become the first Native American to receive a master’s in social work from Columbia University. She also was the first female leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the first Native American woman to run for Congress.

“Once I had the time and opportunity, I became the editor of the high school yearbook, a member of the debate team, and a competitor in public speaking, earning an A for original oration in the state contest… I never got to the prom, but I did get to the White House.” (My Fight)

Elizabeth Kronk Warner

Kronk Warner - Utah

Elizabeth Kronk Warner (The University of Utah)

Elizabeth Kronk Warner, who is a member of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, is Dean and Professor of Law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. She is best known for her work in Native American law concerning climate change and same-sex marriage. She was a member of the debate team at Cornell University.

Inés Maria Talamantez

Dr. Inés Maria Talamantez (Mescalero Apache, Lipan Apache, and Chicana) was Professor of Native American Religious Traditions at University of California, Santa Barbara. She was an expert on Native American religion and philosophy and helped develop the field of Native American Religious Studies. She was a member of her middle school debate team. 

Noemi Tungüi

Noemi Tungüi (Oakland Magazine)

Noemi Tungüi (Oakland Magazine)

Noemi Tungüi, of Purépecha heritage, is a Bay Area activist particularly passionate about climate change. She is trained as a behavioral therapist and uses her skills in Oakland’s Native American Health Center’s Community Wellness Department. She and her friend, Image Meneses, competed on their school’s debate team and became politically engaged by junior year of high school. (Oakland Magazine)

Peggy Flanagan 

Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan was our organization’s Champion of Change in 2019. At our 2019 Mayors Challenge, she explained how her high school forensics coach, Peter Redmond, helped her discover her voice at her St. Louis Park public high school. 

She tells us, “It’s important for our young people to learn the skills of speech and debate so they can develop their own voice, so they can tell and share their narrative. It’s critically important to find and create your space in this world.”

Lieut. Gov. Flanagan was elected lieutenant governor on November 6, 2018, and is the second Native American woman to be elected to statewide executive office in U.S. history. Within her tenure, she’s advocated for her community by creating the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force.

Sarah Deer

Sarah Deer is a legal advocate, professor, and 2014 McArthur Fellow belonging to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma. Her advocacy is focused on violence against women in the American Indian community. She has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Valerie Red-Horse Mohl

Valerie Red Horse Mohl

Valerie Red Horse (VRHM Photo Gallery)

Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, of Cherokee ancestry, is the Executive Director/CEO of Social Venture Circle and the owner/founder of Red-Horse Native Productions, Inc., a film and television production company primarily focused on bringing important documentaries to the screen for which Red-Horse Mohl directs, produces, and writes. She also teaches Entrepreneurism for Racial Equity and Social Impact at Stanford University.


Winona LaDuke 

Ojibwe land rights activist, environmentalist, economist, politician, and author Winona LaDuke has spent her career working on a national level to advocate, raise public support and create funding for environmental groups. While growing up in Ashland, Oregon, LaDuke attended public school and was on the debate team. (The Oregon Encyclopedia)

Zitkala Sa 

Zitkala Sa (Yankton Dakota) has been called one of the most influential activists of the 20th century, with many talents: she served also as a writer, musician translator, and educator. Like Ada Deer, she led a life of many “firsts”: she co-authored the first American Indian musical, The Sun Dance Opera. She also co-founded the National Council of American Indians. She is credited for bringing traditional American Indian stories to broader audiences than ever before.

She joined debate and oratorical contests while attending Earlham College and wrote an award-winning speech called “Side by Side” in 1896. While teaching at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, she instructed both the glee club and the debate team for three years. The subjects of her debates included the treatment of Native American people. (Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist)

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