Assignment for February 22, 2008
Wilma Mankiller was born November 18, 1945 in Tahlequa, Oklahoma, the land of her forefathers dating back to Oklahoma’s statehood and almost certainly back to the forced relocation of the Cherokee to the Indian Territory in the 1830s. Her interest in Indian Activism dates back to the 1960s when, roughly a decade after her family was forcibly relocated by the Department of Indian Affairs to San Francisco, the Indian rights movement gripped California and resulted in such spectacles as the famous protest-based Alcatraz Occupation. She returned to her native Cherokee lands in 1977, where she achieved a job with the tribe administration and did social work for the Cherokee people, making real differences such as her attainment of grants to assist the Cherokee in their agricultural endeavors. Her successes caught the attention of Ross Swimmer, the then-chief of the Cherokee who appointed her as his deputy chief in 1983. When Swimmer stepped down in 1985, Mankiller became the first female chief, not only of the Cherokee, but of any Indian tribe up unto that point. She was elected to the position outright in election of 1987, and served until 1995, in which time she continued her previous policies from her times in lower-level administrative positions and accomplished her goals of working toward the betterment of the lives of the Cherokee, working toward economic self-sufficiency for the tribe, creating the CNCDD (Cherokee Nation Community Development Demartment) and remained dedicated to social issues within the tribe such as better schools, higher-paying occupations, and better health care. Her successes are reflected in the 300% increase in enrollment in the Cherokee nation during her ten-year tenure. After her retirement from the position of chief, Mankiller has remained an activist for both Indian and Women’s issues.
Mankiller used her life to contribute to feminism by being yet another inspiring example of women breaking barriers and proving themselves to be excellent leaders. Even more importantly, she demonstrated that tradition and women’s equality can be reconciled. Her rise to the position of chief did not go unscathed—she faced harsh resistance from the more traditional segments of the Cherokee population who feared that a female leader would destroy balance between the sexes, some even going to the extent of attempting to menace and intimidate her through slashed tires and death threats. Her resounding success as chief erased any doubts as to the capability of a woman to lead in a traditional setting. Also through her leadership she contributed to the eradication of oppression and discrimination, not just for women but for all Cherokee, whose history is a tragic one of neglect and abuse by the federal government. She decided that the only way that the Cherokee would ever lead better lives would be if they took their lives into their own hands, and began instituting social policies at the tribal level rather than waiting for assistance from apathetic outside sources.
I’ve briefly heard of Wilma Mankiller previous to this biography due to the recent social focus on American diversity spilling over into school textbooks. If memory serves, she is often listed as one of the most important American Indians of the twentieth century along with Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Jim Thorpe, and others. Although I had the impression from her simultaneous status in two different oppressed groups (women and Native Americans) that hers would be a story of breaking down prejudice and barriers, it’s good to see specifically what she accomplished as chief of the Cherokee. As for what she can teach me in my own life, any story that involves an individual rising from humble origins to become a leader and a benefactor to their people is inspiring in an age where it increasingly appears as if America is slipping from democracy to plutocracy at all levels of government. Mankiller shows what good can happen when people are put in power based on character rather than power and influence, and I find that motivating in the face of all the other current issues relating to power, how it is attained, and what is done with it once attained that so easily have the power to disillusion.
Resources for further information on this subject:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilma_Mankiller article on Wikipedia
Online biographies at:
Great Women http://www.greatwomen.org/women.php?action=viewone&id=104
Offline information: biographical texts, et cetera:
By Wilma Mankiller:
Mankiller: A Chief and Her People (1999)
Every Day is a Good Day: Reflections of Contemporary Indigenous Women (2004)
Wilma Mankiller: Chief of the Cherokee Nation by Pamela Dell (2006)
Beloved Women: The Lives of Ladonna and Wilma Mankiller by Sarah Eppler Janda (2007)