Wilma Mankiller, the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nations died on April 6, 2010. She served as their Principal Chief from and 1985 to 1995.
Her story contains and reflects the history of her people, retracing archetypal paths of displacement and homecoming. And her story is the story of a powerful woman—negotiating motherhood and intimate partnerships in a patriarchal landscape, meeting and overcoming resistance to serving in a leadership position. It is also a story of a person living with disabilities, both congenital and accident-related. Mankiller’s lifework was a steady demonstration of what could be possible, for an individual, for a community, for a nation. As her best-selling autobiography emphasizes, political and personal resistance require an understanding of place, knowledge of one’s history, spiritual roots, and a love of one’s people.
In 1950, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) came up with a plan for dealing with what they termed “the Indian Problem.” This new policy, ominously called “termination,” had been hatched by Dillon S. Myer, the then-commissioner of the BIA. His credentials for the job? He had been the director of the Japanese War Relocation Authority that, during World War II, had implemented the internment of Japanese-American citizens in camps in California. As Mankiller notes in her autobiography, “The Cherokees and other native tribes should have recognized that the assorted Trails of Tears of our ancestors served in large part as models for the removal of the Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americas in the 1940’s.”
This policy became the excuse for breaking up Native communities and putting tribal lands, no longer non-taxable, on the market. Mankiller’s family was offered the option of “relocation” to a large, urban city. Her father, having been taken from his home as a boy and forced to attend an Indian boarding school, was reluctant to leave his land, but eventually became persuaded that moving to San Francisco would offer a better future for his children.
Mankiller remembers this government facilitated relocation as her own personal “Trail of Tears”—referring to the infamous forced relocations from 1831 to 1838 of five autonomous tribes living in the Deep South. Four thousand of the 15,000 “relocated” Cherokee died from exposure, starvation, and disease during this forced march to Oklahoma.
“No one pointed a gun at me or at members of my family. No show of force was used. It was not necessary… I learned through this ordeal about the fear and anguish that occur when you give up your home, your community, and everything you have ever known to move far away to a strange place. I cried for days, not unlike the children who had stumbled down the Trail of Tears so many years before. I wept tears … tears from my history, from my tribe's past. They were Cherokee tears.”
At the end of this year, she moved back in with her family, who were now living in Hunter’s Point, an area near the shipyards that had been settled by African American families fleeing the Dust Bowl. By 1960, Hunter’s Point was a neighborhood filled with racial tension and gang violence. Mankiller writes how her years on these “mean streets” began to shape her perception of the world: “The women are especially strong. Each day they face daunting problem as they struggle just to survive. They are mothers not only of their children, but of the whole community.”
What changed all that was the Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in the fall of 1969. The island had been occupied briefly five years earlier by a group of Sioux, as a symbolic act of reclamation. In a hundred-year-old Sioux treaty, the US government had agreed that any male Native American older than eighteen, whose tribe had been party to the treaty, could file for a homestead on abandoned or unused federal property. As the island had been declared surplus federal property since the closing of the penitentiary in 1963, Native American activists were claiming their right to take possession.
Mankiller was also feeling the effects of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and against her husband’s wishes, she bought herself a car and began driving to tribal events up and down the coast. She took a job directing the Native American Youth Center in East Oakland and began volunteering with the Pit River people in Northern California, helping them with their fierce battle to regain tribal land from a utility company. Meanwhile, her brother Richard had gone to Pine Ridge and participated in the shoot-out at Wounded Knee.
Mankiller separated from her husband and moved with her daughters to Oakland. Her husband, after picking up nine-year-old Gina for a trip to the circus, informed Mankiller that he would not be returning her. After an agonizing year of separation, he finally brought Gina back, and Mankiller, afraid that he would try to abduct her daughter again, decided it was time to go home to Oklahoma.
She finished her degree in social work and was hired to work for the Cherokee Nation as an economic stimulus coordinator. Her daughters were adapting to their new school, Mankiller was building her home on ancestral lands, and everything seemed on track—and then tragedy struck. She was in a car accident that crushed her face, her legs, and broke her ribs. Worst of all, her best friend had been the driver of the car that hit her, and she had not survived her injuries. The accident required two months’ hospitalization and seventeen surgeries, and it became another turning point.
Having come so close to dying—“walking into the spirit world,” as she put it—Mankiller began to turn toward the Cherokee spiritual path, seeing herself as “the woman who lived before and the woman who lives afterward.”
Shortly after this, she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis and underwent surgery for removal of her thymus. Drawing on the strength of her ancestors and of present-day Cherokee medicine people, she regained her health, returning to her work “with a fury.” She founded the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department and managed the self-help construction project of a sixteen-mile water pipe that revitalized an impoverished Native community.
In 1983 she was asked to run for deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation. Stunned by the sexism she encountered, Mankiller was accused of being an affront to God, and of making the Cherokees a national laughingstock. She even had foes within her own campaign, but she managed to win the election. In 1985, when the Principal Chief was called to Washington, she inherited his office for the remainder of his term, and then ran on her own for Principal Chief and was elected for two more terms. The Cherokee Nation membership is currently 290,000, making it the second largest tribe in the country, after the Navaho. Mankiller was not only the principal guardian of Cherokee tradition and customs, but she managed a budget of seventy-five million dollars. She saw that much of this income went into health care, education, and job training.
In 1995, she made the decision to retire from public office, but she remained a force in tribal affairs, offering counsel and mediation. Later she taught as a guest professor Dartmouth College. In 1998, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton. Mankiller’s health problems continued to escalate, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer and lymphoma. In 2010, the cancer metastasized to her pancreas, and she died on April 6, at the age of sixty-four.
Mankiller wrote, “Western movies always seemed to show Indian women washing clothes at the creek and men with a tomahawk or spear in their hands, adorned with lots of feathers. That image has stayed in some people's minds. Many think we’re either visionaries, ‘noble savages,’ squaw drudges or tragic alcoholics. We’re very rarely depicted as real people who have greater tenacity in terms of trying to hang on to our culture and values system than most people.” Her courageous life of leadership and activism has given the world a visible alternative to the racist stereotypes.