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Mankiller: a chief and her people

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This book is the autobiography of the former Chief of the Cherokee Nation, unfolding her personal story, the history of her people, and the dawning of the Native American Civil Rights struggle. The book is a quest to reclaim and preserve Native American values and to examine her own role as a woman of two cultures and leader of a sovereign nation.

Basically the book is a mix of autobiography, traditional tales, and a lengthy history of the Cherokee. Mankiller's chronicle of her people churns with energy, whether she's raking the federal government over the coals or celebrating past Cherokee leaders like Sequoyah. It is dual story of Chief Mankiller's life and a compact history of crucial and poignant episodes in Cherokee history. This contemporary account of the first woman principal chief of the Cherokee Nation describes the development of a modern-day leader.

A tale of personal triumphs and tragedies, it begins with a childhood spent on an allotment farm in Mankiller Flats, Oklahoma, and moves through teenage years in the 1960s as an "urban Indian," a near brush with death, and a life of solid accomplishment in service and tribal leadership rooted in Cherokee culture. The mid section of the book is purely historical and the interaction of Cherokee and African American history is fascinating and a reoccurring theme.

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The average Americans are taught very little about the native peoples, this book is a must read for those who wish to know the Native American life. Wilma Mankiller's story is profoundly interwoven with the history of the Cherokee. Once the Cherokee lived in Tennessee and across the South, by the early 1800's white settlers were pushing them out of their native lands.

Some left willingly and established new bases in Arkansas, only to be moved later. In the 1830's two-thirds of the Cherokee Nation were finally rounded up and forced to travel, mostly by foot, on a march now called the Trail of Tears. Those who survived the difficult march were placed on a reservation in Indian Territory. Once there, they were again neglected, the result was a confusion that resulted would greatly affect Mankiller's early life.

The book traces her family saga, when they move out in 1950s from rural Oklahoma to San Francisco in a government relocation project. The federal government came up with a policy of "termination" of tribes to mainstream Native Americans. This policy was trumped up as a "wonderful opportunity for Indian families to get great jobs, obtain good education for their kids, and, once and for all, leave poverty behind."

In truth, the program gave the government the perfect chance to take Indian people away from their culture and open up the vast Oklahoma territory to white landowners. Wilama is vocal and does not hesitates to vehemently express her views “In my view, Oklahoma statehood was a very dark page....the harm heaped on our people ...was tremendous....For the Cherokee Nation and the other of the Five Tribes, statehood meant only the heartbreaking conclusion to decades spent fighting attempts to transform Indian Territory into a white commonwealth.”

It was a traumatic change for the 11 year-old Wilma and her 10 brothers and sisters. This sudden shift from traditional life brought her face-to-face with bias, racism and poverty. In spite of this, the Mankiller family had a strength to survive, which came through sheer will alone. Mankiller's father Charley and other relatives helped with the construction of the Mankiller's first real family home. The house was made of rough lumber and had only four rooms described as a "little bitty house with too many people living there”. There was no electricity in the house, and the family had to use wood, coal, oil, and natural gas to cook and heat the house.

Due to the fact that the house also did not have running water, they had to bring water up from a spring for cooking and washing purposes, and use an outhouse to go to the bathroom. Though the home lacked some luxuries, Mankiller looks back on her time there with pleasant memories. However, some memories were not as pleasant as the pride in a family home. To obtain the money needed for basic necessities, Mankiller's parents and older siblings used to go out and cut timber to sell as railroad ties.

To further supplement the family's income, Charley Mankiller and his oldest son went every year to help harvest broomcorn, generally working every day from dawn to sunset. And her family's strength and perseverance paid off. Mankiller attested to her family's strength when she stated, "even though we were poor, I cannot remember ever being hungry as a little girl. Somehow, we always had food on our tables." Mankiller would feel no different from others until the family was relocated to San Francisco, California. That metropolitan setting opened her eyes to many injustices that existed in society and led the way for her focus on activism.

As a child, Mankiller had her doubts about the relocation. These doubts were realized when the Mankiller family arrived in San Francisco and discovered that the situation was not as portrayed. Mankiller and her family had left behind “the sounds of roosters, owls, crickets.” The Native Americans are in love with their land and cannot think of selling or misusing it, as Supposedly Chief Seattle said in the 1850s “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land. Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people.”

The 1969 Indian occupation of Alcatraz, which she supported strongly proved a turning point in her life. She became an activist in Indian affairs, eventually leaving her husband and returning with her two daughters to her old home. Surviving a debilitating automobile accident and a kidney transplant, she continues to lead her people. In this inspiring story, Mankiller offers herself as a valuable role model--for women as well as Native Americans.

Wilama is a tribal woman to the core, who loves her traditions and culture intensely and proud to be a Native American. She unfolds the wrongs of the White Americans settlers, when Native Americans spiritual beliefs and practices were considered ignorance. She explains that to be a Native American means holding a different perspective of the world.

She enlightens the readers, that the culture, values and traditions of native people are more than crafts and carvings. The Natives  respect for the wisdom of their elders, concept of family responsibilities, concern for the environment and willingness to share - all of these values makes  Native American culture endurable in the course of time.

On personal level the book is an autobiography overcoming the difficulties and problems, however it moves beyond personal woes and traces the history of the Cherokees. The tale revolves around her own battle against devastating personal illnesses--including kidney disease and myasthenia gravis- -evokes praise and admiration for over coming her odyssey of life. The text is filled with her “innate love of all people’’. Despite talk of  “spirituality” very little spirituality can found in the book. It is a  story of survival, told with honesty and eloquence, teaching the readers, the lesson of endurance and strength in the wake of crisis.


“The 2005-06 chairwoman of the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, an independent center at the law school, Mankiller is also serving as a visiting professor in the Ethnic Studies department through the end of this month.

The speech opened with a ceremonial welcome by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Honor Guard and a traditional song performed by the Eagle Beak Singers. Mankiller was introduced by University President Dave Frohnmayer, who said it was an “honor to welcome a woman, a leader, a person who understands the relationship between knowledge and morality.”

Mankiller began by mentioning the difficulties of having an informed dialogue on Native American issues. Mankiller deconstructed many stereotypes about Native Americans and reiterated the necessity of doing so”.

Oregon Daily  Emerald, November 13, 2005

“Contemporary Native women of the United States and Canada, politically active in Indigenous rights movements for the past thirty years, variously articulate a reluctance to affiliate with white feminist movements of North America. Despite differences in tribal affiliation, regional location, urban or reservation background, academic or community setting, and pro- or antifeminist ideology, many Native women academics and grassroots activists alike invoke models of preconquest, egalitarian societies to theorize contemporary social and political praxes.

Such academics as Paula Gunn Allen, Rayna Green, and Patricia Monture-Angus, as well as Native activists Wilma Mankiller, Mary Brave Bird, and Yet Si Blue (Janet McCloud) have problematized the reformative role white feminism can play for Indigenous groups, arguing that non-Native women's participation in various forms of Western imperialism have often made them complicit in the oppression of Native peoples”

Revision and Resistance: The Politics of Native Women's Motherwork, Lisa J. Ude, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies ,2001

The key to reaching this goal is ownership. Service must never be done for others but with them. Before she became Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Wilma Mankiller attracted national attention through her work with self-help community-service projects in isolated Cherokee communities. The most dramatic of these involved the tiny community of Bell, where local Cherokee designed and carried out a project that became a catalyst for bringing their community together. The project could have been done for the people (the approach usually taken by government agencies) rather than by the people. But that wasn't what Mankiller had in mind.

Kappan.P  Service-Learning and Multicultural/Multiethnic Perspectives from Diversity to Equity (2005)

She has shown in her typically exuberant way that not only can Native Americans learn a lot from the whites, but that whites can learn from native people. Understanding the interconnectedness of all things, many whites are beginning to understand the value of native wisdom, culture and spirituality. Spirituality is then key to the public and private life of Wilma Mankiller who has indeed become known not only for her community leadership but also for her spiritual presence. A woman rabbi who is the head of a large synagogue in New York commented that Mankiller was a significant spiritual force in the nation.

Her book also details her social and political involvement in American Indian and women's issues and her return to her northeast Oklahoma roots. Since then, Mankiller worked on many community development programs designed to provide jobs and/or homes to Native American people. In 1991, she was reelected as chief.

Power Source, Wilma Mankiller former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

Mankiller attributes her understanding of her people’s history partially to her own families forced removal, as part of the government's Indian relocation policy, to California when she was a young girl. Her concern for Native American issues was ignited in 1969 when she watched a group of university students with AIM (American Indian Movement) occupy Alcatraz Island in order to attract attention to the issues affecting their tribes. Shortly afterwards, she began working in preschool and adult education programs in the Pit River Tribe of California.

Women History Project

In this spiritually moving autobiography, Wilma Mankiller not only tells her personal story, but honors and recounts the complex history of the Cherokees. Her book becomes the quest to reclaim and preserve the great Native American values that form the foundation of our nation. She details the dawning of the Native American civil rights struggle and how the genesis of that movement mirrored her own search for meaning and balance as a woman of two cultures and as the head of state for a sovereign nation of native people.

Four Winds Indians Books (2005)










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