April 7, 2010

Wilma Mankiller - What We Seek

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Yesterday, Wilma Mankiller, Chief of the Cherokee died after a long battle with cancer in Oklahoma.  She was a remarkable woman and today I mourn this amazing woman.  Here's a bit of background if you are not familiar with her and her achievements.

Wilma Mankiller (born 1945) became active in Native American causes in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s and gained skills in community organization and program development. With 56 percent of the vote, Mankiller became the first woman elected Cherokee principal chief in the historic Cherokee election of 1987.

Wilma Pearl Mankiller is both the first woman Deputy Chief and first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She overcame many personal tragedies and returned home to Mankiller Flats, Oklahoma, to establish herself as a political power working for the betterment of all people. Mankiller was born at Tahlequah, the capitol of the Cherokee Nation, in November 1945, and was raised until she was ten years old at Mankiller Flats. Her father was Charlie Mankiller, Cherokee, and her mother was Irene Mankiller, Dutch-Irish. She had four sisters and six brothers.

Trail of Tears

Mankiller's great-grandfather was one of the over 16,000 Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and African slaves who struggled along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma during the removal period, when Andrew Jackson was President in the 1830s. According to Carl Waldman in Atlas of the North American Indian, their journey was one of much pain and death: "At least a quarter of the Indians died before even reaching the Indian Territory. And many more died afterward, as they struggled to build new lives in the rugged terrain, with meager supplies and surrounded by hostile western Indians."

The Mankillers were very poor in Oklahoma, their ancestors being deposited there in 1838 and 1839, and it was difficult for Mankiller's father to maintain his family with any semblance of dignity. Although they did not want to move to California, Charlie Mankiller thought he could make a better life there for them and accepted a government offer to relocate. However, program promises faltered, money did not arrive, and there was often no employment available, so their life did not improve after their arrival in San Francisco.

The children were homesick even before they started for California. As Mankiller recalled in her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People,"I experienced my own Trail of Tears when I was a young girl. No one pointed a gun at me or at members of my family. No show of force was used. It was not necessary. Nevertheless, the United States government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was again trying to settle the 'Indian problem' by removal. 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 that came from deep within the Cherokee part of me. They were tears from my history, from my tribe's past. They were Cherokee tears."

Mankiller overcame many tragedies to become a guiding power for the Cherokee people of Oklahoma and a symbol of achievement for women everywhere. Yet through all the trying times, she worried for all people everywhere and planned for their happiness. She herself found love and strength in Charlie Soap. She gives him much credit for her successes and her will to overcome the many obstacles that threatened her political and physical life after her return to Oklahoma.

Throughout her life, Mankiller has managed to not complain about how bad things are for herself, for her people, and for Native people in general, but instead to help make life better. Fittingly, she was inducted into the Woman's Hall of Fame in New York City in 1994.

In California, cringing at the snickering that always followed the school roll call when the teacher said "Mankiller," she nevertheless finished high school and pursued higher education. In the 1960s she attended Skyline Junior College in San Bruno then San Francisco State College. At San Francisco State she met and married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi. In 1964 they had a daughter, Felicia, and in 1966 another, Gina. In college, Mankiller was introduced to some of the Native Americans who would soon occupy and reclaim Alcatraz Island for the Native American people.

Her life is a testament to perserverance, hope, strength and love for mankind.


Rustique Gal said...

What a nice tribute you made. I will seek out her book and read it. Have a great day.

Riki Schumacher said...

What a lovely post Julie. I saw the piece about her on the news and was so impressed by her accomplishments, but your post brings her life more meaning. Thank you for posting this. She is truly an American hero. Hugs, Riki

Simply Colette said...

Oh I saw her speak at the University of Oregon a few years back when I went to school there. What an inspirational woman.