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Copyright 2010 Carolyn Gage

Originally published in Rain and Thunder: A Radical Feminist Journal of Discussion and
Activism, Summer 2010, Northampton, MA

Remembering Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010)

“Prior to my election, young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might
grow up and become chief.”

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.

Mankiller’s father was Charley Mankiller, a Cherokee, and her mother, Irene, was of
Dutch-Irish descent, but acculturated to Cherokee life. She had ten siblings and grew up
on her father’s allotment, near Rocky Mountain, Oklahoma. She remembers her first ten
years at “Mankiller Flats” with affection. She and her siblings would walk three miles
each way to school, but, in Mankiller’s words, “I didn’t know the difference between
being poor and having money until one day at school. A little girl… saw my flour-sack
underwear while we were in the outhouse. She ran and told some other girls, and they
all teased me about it. That was really the first time I had any inkling we were different.”

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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.”

On August 1, 1953, Congress adopted a resolution making Indians “subject to the same
laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as applicable to other
citizens of the United States, to end their status as wards of the United States…”

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

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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.”

The better life that the Mankillers had been promised turned out to be low-paying factory
jobs and housing in an urban ghetto. Feeling neglected by her parents, who had their
hands full supporting the large family, Mankiller became a rebellious teenager, running
away to her grandmother’s ranch near Modesto. She had to run away five times, before
her family finally allowed her to stay. She credits her year on the ranch as a turning
point in her life, where she took an active role in the farm, shadowing her tough and
outspoken grandmother.

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.”

After high school, Mankiller moved in with her sister, taking a job as a clerical worker.
She met an Ecuadoran student from an aristocratic family, and after a dizzying summer
courtship, they flew to Reno to get married. Mankiller was seventeen. A year later, she
gave birth to a daughter, and then two years later, she had a second daughter. She
began to take classes at a community college and then, through a minorities
educational opportunity program, she entered San Francisco State University. By the
mid-1960’s the Bay Area was exploding politically and culturally. Mankiller describes
taking her daughters to Haight-Ashbury: “…I think the people of the Haight had to be as
curious about us as we were about them. My daughters wore shiny patent-leather
shoes and little-girl dresses, and I looked like what I was at the time, a young housewife
who liked to observe… but was unwilling to get fully involved.”

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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.

In October 1969, a fire of suspicious origin gutted the American Indian Center in San
Francisco. In an act of protest, fourteen Native Americans landed on Alcatraz and
claimed it in the name of “Indians of All Tribes.” Within a day, the Coast Guard arrived to
escort the protesters off the island, but ten days later, nearly a hundred activists
returned—this time with provisions, and the occupation lasted for nineteen months.
During this time, Mankiller would visit the island with her daughters, running support for
four of her siblings and their children who had joined the protest. In her words, “The
occupation of Alcatraz excited me like nothing ever had before. It helped to center me
and caused me to focus on my own rich and valuable Cherokee heritage.”

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

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brought Gina back, and Mankiller, afraid that he would try to abduct her daughter again,
decided it was time to go home to Oklahoma.

“I looked to the east, where the sun begins its daily journey. That was where I had to go,
not to heal for a few weeks after a marital squabble, not to lay a loved one to rest and
then leave again—I had to go back to stay.”

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.

The project affirmed her belief that the Cherokee people had the capacity to solve their
own problems, and it also brought her together with the man who would become her life
partner and best friend—Charlie Soap, a full-blooded Cherokee who worked with the
tribal Housing Authority.

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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.

Mankiller had been diagnosed in her twenties with polycystic fibrosis, a genetic disease
that ran in her family, and in 1990, she underwent an operation to replace one of her
affected kidneys. Her brother Don was the donor.

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.

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