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Remembering: Wilma Mankiller on the Voices of Oklahoma

From The Voices of Oklahoma: Remembering Wilma Mankiller

I would have never been able to do the things that I’ve done if I wasn’t a positive person. So I think that I was just given this gift. My Dad always described me as a sunny child. –Wilma Mankiller

One year before her death, Wilma Mankiller spoke with John Erling on August 13th 2009, in an inspiring interview that captures the brilliant and unifying legacy of the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. In a clear and inviting manner, Mankiller discusses personal tragedy, racist injustice, and the difficulty of being a woman in politics. Never opting to let these debilitating factors get in her way, Mankiller forged a path of powerful activism, communal engagement and unity: not letting divisive partisan political lines get in the way of working together for a better world.

Wilma Mankiller begins by tracing some historical background of the Cherokees and her own upbringing: “The federal government did everything it could to try to destroy the Cherokee Nation” she states, discussing historic traumas such as the “Trail of Tears,” the Dawes Act in 1907, and what she directly experienced during “The Termination Era.” Cut off from a shared identity, the loss experienced by her displaced community is impossible to imagine for anyone but those inside. The story itself seemed distant to Mankiller in her youth, almost lost: “they talked pieces, but no one sat down and said, this is the story, the entire story.” Another memory she shares is of the man who thought there would be another removal: “he never felt secure.”

After hearing Mankiller’s story about being relocated from her community in rural Oklahoma for a “better life” in the late 1950s, her grand achievements are all the more astonishing. “There was no kind of orientation program or anything like that…All we knew was that we were going and we weren’t coming back.” Her family spent their first night in an old hotel in the red light district of San Francisco: “it was like landing in Mars.”

Though she points to the occupation of Alcatraz as the catalyst for her career in activism, it is perhaps this rending of her sense of community that inspired work such as the Bell Community Revitalization Project in 1981 in which Mankiller and former Principal Chief Ross Swimmer worked together to “set the foundation of the self-help movement within the Cherokee Nation” by providing resources to the struggling community and partnering with them to help rebuild their own infrastructure. Calling it both “an experiment in development” and “an affirmation of the human spirit,” Mankiller has these inspiring and empowering words to say about the marginalized in society:

“For me, I think, I’ve always believed that poor people, not just Cherokee people and Native people but poor people in general have a much greater capacity for leadership and creativity, than they’re ever given credit for. And that a lot of people who work with poor people want them to just be passive recipients of services and not really be involved. So Bell was really an affirmation for me that if you give people resources and an opportunity they will help themselves. They’ll rise to the occasion, they’ll help other people.”

Mankiller does not mince words in regards to her own political ideology: “I’m definitely a Democrat.” But her career points to several engagements and friendships across party lines, embracing a spirit of unity rather than division: “I don’t believe in solving problems in a divisive way, so I just stayed steady, was respectful to everybody no matter how they treated me. I tried to keep them involved and tried to be diplomatic and we eventually managed to get along.” In her words, former Principal Chief Ross Swimmer, a Republican, “never wavered in his support of me ever.” What they had in common, in her estimation, was that they both “believed in people.” More amusingly, she paints a picture of the differing ideas within her own family: “My Mother’s a Republican and a conservative, but my brother Richard wanted to go off and join the Wounded Knee Occupation, it was like, okay, well take care of yourself.”

Though Mankiller was exceptionally successful in the 80’s and 90’s, she still sees much room for improvement in the way that our culture disadvantages women in politics. “I think we’re behind as a nation” she claims, and points to the stream of sexist rhetoric imposed on Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election cycle. She isn’t blind to this phenomenon across party lines, identifying Sarah Palin as someone she “has nothing in common with and probably wouldn’t want to be in a room with” yet had to be subjected to “terribly inappropriate” comments throughout her campaign. With eyes towards a more contemporary political moment, it is clear that this issue has only gotten worse. Mankiller’s advice for women is to embrace power and independence: “I think that girls should not let other people define for them what it means to be a woman. I think they should not let magazines, or the culture of the larger society, or their boyfriends, influence who they are as a person. That they need to figure out how to define for themselves, what does it mean to be a woman, for me?” For Mankiller “being a woman” seems to mean getting things done: “I don’t think I ever sat down and thought, well, I can’t do this because I’m a woman.”

At the end of the interview Erling asks a final question: “Accomplishments that you were most proud of or, or the most effective as you were Chief?” And though Mankiller has no need to be humble in light of her life filled with achievements, including three terms as Principal Chief, landslide elections, and 18 honorary doctorates, she responds with another shout out for collaboration: “First of all I never did anything by myself. Anything that I’ve ever done in my life has been with a team.”

 

Check out the rest of the Interview at “Voices of Oklahoma” by following the link below:

Mankiller, Wilma

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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