Wilma Mankiller: First Woman Cherokee Chief
New America Media, Profile, Khalil Abdullah Posted: Oct 04, 2009
Editor's Note: Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, says that when native women assume leadership positions, they take a step forward for women and a step into tribal tradition at the same time. Her activism began 40 years ago in November, when native students occupied the island of Alcatraz near San Francisco. Mankiller was honored as an extraordinary older woman at the AARP conference on diversity and aging in Chicago. She was interviewed by New America Media editor Khalil Abdullah.
“The watershed event in my life was when native students occupied Alcatraz in November 1969,” recalled Wilma Mankiller, who went on to become the first woman chief principal of the Cherokee Nation.
Mankiller, 63, looks back 40 years later on how events and mentors -- including such luminaries as “Roots” author Alex Haley and United Farm Workers cofounder Dolores Huerta -– shaped her activism. She spoke when she was honored by AARP this summer as one of the nation’s extraordinary older women.
Mankiller was already married and raising children in the San Francisco Bay Area when the occupation of Alcatraz began. Hers was a conventional American marriage, with neatly defined roles of husband and wife. Alcatraz was the beginning of a sea change in her life.
“When I took the boat out to Alcatraz with my two young daughters, my life moved in a different direction and I never looked back,” she reminisced. It was at Alcatraz that she first heard native leaders and saw native people stand up to the U.S. government over their rights.
The tumultuous year of 1969 was marked by such historical events as Woodstock Nation, the Rolling Stones’ tragic Altamont concert, the Chicago Eight trial, the Mai Lai massacre in Viet Nam and men landing on the moon. Yet, for Mankiller, the Alcatraz occupation was the definitive eye-opening drama of the era.
Long abandoned as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz was being considered for conversion to everything from a park to a tourist resort.
With Thanksgiving approaching, a small band of American Indian activists boated to occupy the island. They cited an old treaty, which provided that unused federal land should return to the native people. The stand-off with government authorities lasted 19 months.
“Inspired by Alcatraz,” Mankiller recalled, “I began working as a volunteer with the Pit River Tribe as they struggled to regain their ancestral lands. That work eventually led me back to my own Cherokee community in rural Eastern Oklahoma.”
In the 1800s, the Cherokee were uprooted by the U.S. government from their homelands in the southeastern United States. The forced migration westward became known as the Trail of Tears.
In the mid-20th century, the federal government continued to relocate native people, dissociating them from their culture and their homeland, Mankiller said. Ironically, for her, the transplantation failed to weaken her cultural identity. Witnessing the Alcatraz occupation, instead, awakened it.
Yet, at an even earlier age, Mankiller had benefited from the guidance of a mentor to give context and meaning to the events around her. “My life would have turned out very differently if a woman at the San Francisco Indian Center had not looked beyond my rough exterior and seen potential in me,” Mankiller confided.
She described how a staff member at the center, Justine Buckskin, “extended a hand to me at a time I really needed it. So, when I think about women's rights organizations, I think about women extending a hand to other women.”
Well aware that her name gets immediate attention, she explained that in the Cherokee tradition, “Mankiller” was a title of the person responsible for providing tribal security and protection. “One of my ancestors held that position and adopted the title as his name,” she said.
Among her inspirations was “Roots” author Alex Haley. In 1991, Wilma Mankiller went to hear him speak in Tahlequah, Okla., her birthplace and the capital of the Cherokee Nation.
That night, Haley -- who died only two months later – shared his frustration that so much ignorance persisted in the United States about the African-American people and their contributions to America.
Mankiller saw the same problem in her community. “The biggest issue for native people across the board is the fact that most Americans know very little about native people,” she stated. “Without any historical knowledge -- or cultural context -- it's impossible to understand our issues.”
Along her path of evolving self-awareness, she met another mentor, feminist writer and thinker Gloria Steinem. They became friends, and when Steinem married at age 66, the ceremony was held at Mankiller’s home in Oklahoma.
“I think my first real practical role model,” Mankiller said, “was a Navajo woman named Dr. Jenny Joe, who started a series of programs of children and youth. I was in my early 20s. She was the most educated native woman I had ever seen.”
Yet Mankiller, the first member of her family to attend college, acknowledged that Native American cultures retain a distinctive ethos. “My primary message is that native women share some of the same challenges as other women but there are also differences,” she said.
“Of the approximately 560 tribal governments in the United States, more than 130 are led by women. When native women assume leadership positions, they take a step forward for women and a step into tribal tradition at the same time,” Mankiller said.
Mankiller observed that she grew up learning conventional restrictions on women’s ambitions. “My concept of women’s role has dramatically changed and deepened over the course of the past four decades. When I was young, women were not expected to become senators, run major corporations, or even become president of the United States.”
According to the National Congress of American Indians, the number of top women leaders has almost doubled since Mankiller was elected chief in the 1980s. The reasons, say various experts, range from increasing education and professional work experience among women, to such modern social pressures as increasing divorce and single-parent homes, which have compelled women to enhance their managerial skills and community involvement.
During Mankiller’s decade as the principal Cherokee chief, she promoted health clinics, youth programs, and other projects to improve infrastructure and foster development. She now spends time encouraging greater philanthropic participation in Native American issues and organizations.
Encouraged by the interest that Native American youth are exhibiting in their heritage, Mankiller commented, “They are using every technological tool available to them today, but they are also interested in maintaining their culture, a strong sense of who they are as young native people.”
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