the biographical sketches
Wilma Mankiller came from a large family and lived for many years on their farm in Oklahoma. The land was allotted to her paternal grandfather, John Mankiller, in 1907. It is a place where the worth of a person is not determined by the size of their bank account. Her surname, Mankiller, is an ancient Cherokee title for a person who is responsible for protecting a village.
They were a poor family, but there were always books around the house. Her father's love for books was one of the best gifts that he gave to his children. It reflected the traditional Cherokee passion for sharing stories. The Bureau of Indian Affairs conducted a relocation program in the 1950s. The purpose was to disperse the population and to obtain their land, which was rich with petroleum. In 1959, the family moved to San Francisco. Wilma's father got a job and Wilma went to school. This was not a happy time for her. She remembered her farm, and she hated the school. The white children tormented her. Mankiller decided to go to live with her grandmother, Pearl Sitton. She stayed for a year. She returned to San Francisco with her confidence restored. She became involved with the San Francisco Indian Center. The Center had social and cultural activities for youth. It was also a place for to have powwows and to meet other relocated people. Mankiller became politicized and reinforced her identity as a Cherokee. In November 1969, Alcatraz Island was occupied by a group of Native Americans. Mankiller participated in this protest and was transformed by the experience. On Alcratraz, she began to regain her equilibrium. Mankiller became active in developing the cultural resources of the Native American community. She helped to build a school and a center for adult education. She was also the director of a youth center. Her enthusiasm compensated for any lack of skills. But she was a natural leader. She returned to Okalahoma to work at the Urban Indian Resource Center, and as a volunteer in the community.
In 1981, she founded the Cherokee Community Development Department. As its director, she orchestrated the renovation of the local water system. She helped the town of Bell, Oklahoma, to rise above its situation of squalor and despair. In 1983, she was a candidate for Deputy Chief of the Cherokee Nation. The campaign was not easy. There had never been a female leader of a Native American tribe. She encountered opposition from the men. Her days were troubled by threats of death and by vandalism. She sought advice for ways to cope with the constant insults. Her philosophy became: Do not argue with a fool. Because other people cannot tell who is the fool. She was elected as the first female Deputy Chief. Her wise leadership vindicated her supporters and proved her detractors to be wrong. In 1985, Chief Ross Swimmer, went away to the American capitol. Mankiller was obligated to take over his position. She became the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Mankiller won the next tribal election in 1987. As the leader of the Cherokee people, she represented the second to largest tribe in America. The largest is the Navajo. Wilma managed a population of over 140,000, an annual budget of more than 75 million dollars, and more than 1,200 employees. Her territory was spread over 7,000 square miles. In 1990, Oklahoma State University honored her with the Henry G. Bennett Distinguished Service Award. Poor health forced her to retire in 1995, but Wilma Mankiller continues to be a political, cultural, and spiritual leader. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Clinton, in 1988. This is the highest civilian honor in America.
She has shown us that Native Americans and white people can learn from each other. Many white people are beginning to understand the value of native wisdom, culture, and spirituality. Spirituality is the key to the public and private life of Wilma Mankiller. She says, "After every big upheaval, we have been able to gather together as a people and to rebuild. Individually and collectively, Cherokee people possess an extraordinary ability to face adversity. Because our culture has sustained us since time immemorial. This culture is a closely kept secret." Now Wilma shares her home with her husband, Charlie Soap, and Winterhawk, his son.
myhero.com © Susannah Abbey
Edited by Michael Hawes