ALDH1+CD44+ cells are putative tumor-initiating cells (TIC) in head and neck squamous cell carcinomas (HNC). miR-145 regulates tumorigenicity in various cancers but the breadth of its mechanistic contributions and potential therapeutic applications are not completely known. Here, we report that ALDH1+CD44+-HNC cells express reduced levels of miR145. SPONGE-mediated inhibition of miR-145 (Spg-miR145) was sufficient to drive tumor-initiating characteristics in non-TICs/ALDH1-CD44- negative HNC cells. Mechanistic analyses identified SOX9 and ADAM17 as two novel miR145 targets relevant to this process. miR-145 expression repressed TICs in HNC in a manner associated with SOX9 interaction with the ADAM17 promoter, thereby activating ADAM17 expression. Notably, the SOX9/ADAM17 axis dominated the TIC-inducing activity of miR-145. Either miR-145 suppression or ADAM17 overexpression in non-TICs/ALDH1-CD44-HNC cells increased expression and secretion of interleukin (IL)-6 and soluble-IL-6 receptor (sIL-6R). Conversely, conditioned medium from SpgmiR145- transfected non-TICs/ALDH1-CD44-HNC cells was sufficient to confer tumor-initiating properties in non-TICs/ALDH1-CD44-HNC and this effect could be abrogated by an IL-6-neutralizing antibody. We found that curcumin administration increased miR-145 promoter activity, thereby decreasing SOX9/ADAM17 expression and eliminating TICs in HNC cell populations. Delivery of lentivral-miR145 or orally administered curcumin blocked tumor progression in HNC-TICs in murine xenotransplant assays. Finally, immunohistochemical analyses of patient specimens confirmed that an miR-145low/SOX9high/ADAM17high phenotype correlated with poor survival. Collectively, our results show how miR-145 targets the SOX9/ADAM17 axis to regulate TIC properties in HNC, and how altering this pathway may partly explain the anticancer effects of curcumin. By inhibiting IL-6 and sIL-6R as downstream effector cytokines in this pathway, miR-145 seems to suppress a paracrine signaling pathway in the tumor microenvironment that is vital to maintain TICs in HNC.