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Mankiller : a chief and her people

Wilma Pearl Mankiller was principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and the first woman to hold that position. In the Cherokee language, the surname “Mankiller,”  Asgaya-dihi, references a traditional Cherokee rank, such as captain or major. Chief Mankiller was the least violent individual on this planet, but she was a commander, comparable to a Four-Star General, for whom the word "no" did not exist, especially when confronted with a problem. She was relentless in seeking solutions and enlisted others to help. Part of working within a group was an implicit aspect of the Cherokee tribe. Wilma Mankiller extended that idea to working with others outside her tribe. Her entire life was riddled with obstacles, stumbling blocks, personal tragedies, but she moved forward, with curiosity, ingenuity and a quiet and determined manner.  

She was born on November 18, 1945 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, the sixth of eleven children. When she was ten years old, she and her entire family were moved to California, as part of the federal government's relocation program during the 1950s, in order to break up tribal communities or "mainstream" Native Americans from rural to urban areas. As she states, "One day I was living in a rural Cherokee community, and a few days later I was living in California and trying to deal with the mysteries of television, neon lights, and elevators. It was total culture shock."  Prior to that the family had lived without indoor plumbing and hauled water for a quarter of a mile to their home. This deprivation was the result of previous actions taken by the federal government in 1907 that ignored the Cherokee Constitution, dismantled the tribal government and divided their land into individual allotments.

As they had done before, along with other Native Americans throughout the United States, they adjusted to the move to San Francisco. Wilma Mankiller attended school, met her first husband, with whom she had two daughters, but experienced a political and social awakening during the 1960s. In 1969, a group of university students occupied Alcatraz Island, former site of the Alcatraz Prison. This particular event was a major turning point in her life as she took classes at San Francisco State College, did volunteer work with the Pit River Tribe in California, gave time to Native America preschool and adult programs and directed a dropout prevention program for Native American young people. She divorced her husband and moved back to her ancestral homeland in Oklahoma to build a house and raise her children. In 1979, tragedy struck when she was involved in a serious car crash that resulted in major injuries. In addition to this calamitous accident was that the other person driving the car was her close friend, who died. That accident was another pivotal moment in her life, as she literally faced death in a head-on car crash, and it took her over a year to recover from severe facial injuries, broken ribs and legs, and the death of her friend. This time brought her an awakening that she called a Cherokee approach to life, "what our tribal elders call 'being of good mind.'" This prepared her to direct a major project in 1981, the Bell Community Revitalization Project, that used federal and private money and the  direct work of the community to bring running water to homes, rebuild run-down, substandard housing and brought a sense of empowerment and pride to the community. 

She later married an old friend, Charlie Soap, a full-blooded Cherokee, and former director of tribal development, who was not intimidated or threatened by this powerful, hardworking woman. Wilma Mankiller faced other physical ailments. During her lifetime she went on to work with many seemingly divergent groups of people outside of her tribal communities. She stayed politically and socially active and was honored many times over: as the Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year in 1987; induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993, and in 1998 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Bill Clinton.

Mankiller died on April 6, 2010, age 64 from pancreatic cancer. Her life was shorter than it should have been, but her accomplishments were far greater and numerous than that of many others. Wilma Pearl Mankiller's funeral was attended by Oklahoma Governor Brad Perry and women’s rights activist and close friend Gloria Steinem, who said,  “Ancient traditions call for setting signal fires to light the way home for a great one; fires were lit in 23 countries after Wilma's death. The millions she touched will continue her work, but I will miss her every day of my life.”  President Barack Obama said, “As the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, she transformed the Nation-to-Nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the Federal Government and served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she was recognized for her vision and commitment to a brighter future for all Americans. Her legacy will continue to encourage and motivate all who carry on her work.”

This book is her autobiography that brings together her life and that of her people which are one and the same, or as Wilma Pearl Mankiller said, " ... weave together the unbroken threads of tribal history, wisdom, and culture preserved by each generation."

Highly recommended is this documentary, Mankiller : activist, feminist, Cherokee chief, because you will be able to hear the voice of this remarkable woman, who spoke with calm and clarity, and never with rancor.