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Remembering Wilma Mankiller

Remembering Wilma Mankiller

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Published by carolyn6302
Essay on the life of Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee Chief and feminist.
Essay on the life of Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee Chief and feminist.

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Published by: carolyn6302 on Aug 13, 2010
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10/25/2012

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Copyright 2010 Carolyn GageOriginally 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, meetingand overcoming resistance to serving in a leadership position. It is also a story of aperson living with disabilities, both congenital and accident-related. Mankiller’s lifeworkwas a steady demonstration of what could be possible, for an individual, for acommunity, for a nation. As her best-selling autobiography emphasizes, political andpersonal 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 upon her father’s allotment, near Rocky Mountain, Oklahoma. She remembers her first tenyears at “Mankiller Flats” with affection. She and her siblings would walk three mileseach way to school, but, in Mankiller’s words, “I didn’t know the difference betweenbeing poor and having money until one day at school. A little girl… saw my flour-sackunderwear while we were in the outhouse. She ran and told some other girls, and theyall 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 whatthey termed “the Indian Problem.” This new policy, ominously called “termination,” hadbeen 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, duringWorld War II, had implemented the internment of Japanese-American citizens in campsin California. As Mankiller notes in her autobiography, “The Cherokees and other nativetribes should have recognized that the assorted Trails of Tears of our ancestors servedin 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 samelaws 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 triballands, 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 boyand forced to attend an Indian boarding school, was reluctant to leave his land, buteventually became persuaded that moving to San Francisco would offer a better futurefor 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 fiveautonomous tribes living in the Deep South. Four thousand of the 15,000 “relocated”Cherokee died from exposure, starvation, and disease during this forced march toOklahoma.“No one pointed a gun at me or at members of my family. No show of force was used. Itwas 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 tomove 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 myhistory, 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, runningaway to her grandmother’s ranch near Modesto. She had to run away five times, beforeher family finally allowed her to stay. She credits her year on the ranch as a turningpoint in her life, where she took an active role in the farm, shadowing her tough andoutspoken grandmother.At the end of this year, she moved back in with her family, who were now living inHunter’s Point, an area near the shipyards that had been settled by African Americanfamilies fleeing the Dust Bowl. By 1960, Hunter’s Point was a neighborhood filled withracial tension and gang violence. Mankiller writes how her years on these “meanstreets” 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 mothersnot 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, shegave birth to a daughter, and then two years later, she had a second daughter. Shebegan to take classes at a community college and then, through a minoritieseducational opportunity program, she entered San Francisco State University. By themid-1960’s the Bay Area was exploding politically and culturally. Mankiller describestaking her daughters to Haight-Ashbury: “…I think the people of the Haight had to be ascurious 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 housewifewho liked to observe… but was unwilling to get fully involved.”

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