Today: Wilma Mankiller, who rose from the San Francisco government housing projects to lead the Cherokee Nation.
For centuries, the American tribal nations lived coast to coast, practicing their cultures and living off the lands they occupied, a beautiful balance in nature. By the tens of millions, the people thrived until the white men annihilated many of them, including what was left of their cultures.
As the white men seized their lands, the Indian survivors were forcibly placed on small amounts of land, called Reservations, and left to live off the charity of the U.S. government. In effect, they were tethered to a post like dogs, their dignity gone, and had to struggle to survive.
But in recent years, under the visionary leadership of individuals such as Wilma Mankiller, some Native American tribes have begun to rise from the depths of poverty to resurrect themselves.
Born on the Cherokee Reservation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma in 1945, Wilma was the 6th of 11 children in the Mankiller family. Her father Charley was a full blooded Cherokee and her mother Clara was of European ancestry.
Like many other Indians on the Reservation, Wilma and her family lived in extreme poverty. Their home had no running water, nor indoor plumbing, heating, electricity or telephones.
But things went from bad to worse. The Mankiller’s farm failed in the 1950’s and the government, wanting to assimilate Indians into the American culture, moved them to San Francisco. “I guess they figured we could open a liquor store,” Wilma told the Associated Press in 1985.*
To support his family, Charley worked as a warehouseman, but it didn’t pay well enough and the family lived in government housing as they struggled to endure. As a result, Charley also became a union organizer.
Meanwhile, Wilma married a non-Cherokee at 17, and had two daughters, Gina and Felicia. She also attended Skyline College and San Francisco State University, intending to become a social worker.
But her life changed dramatically in 1969 when thousands of Indians united and peacefully seized and occupied Alcatraz Island in the heart of the San Francisco Bay. The occupation lasted for 1 1/2 years and was meant to call America’s attention to the mistreatment of its native peoples.
Wilma visited this occupation, and it awakened her ancestral roots and pride. She helped to raise money for its support and she became an activist, which she would remain for the rest of her life.
After her divorce in the mid-1970s, Wilma took her daughters and moved back to the Oklahoma Cherokee Reservation. There, as an economic coordinator and later as the head of community development, she used her intense energy to help the Cherokee Nation uplift itself.
She organized and ran programs that greatly improved educational opportunities and medical care and she helped to start businesses and create career opportunities. During this time, she also got her Bachelor’s Degree from Flaming Rainbow University and did graduate work at the University of Arkansas, as she demonstrated the difference an education can make.
The impact on the Cherokees was profound and in 1983, when Ross Swimmer ran for re-election as Chief, he named Wilma as his Deputy Chief running mate and was re-elected. Two years later, when he resigned to take a senior position in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, she became Chief of the Cherokee Nation, the first woman to hold that powerful position in modern times.
As Chief, Wilma was responsible for an annual budget that grew to $150 million and the money came from a wide variety of tribal businesses, including gambling, lumber and ranching. And as the profits came in, she plowed them back into business investment to expand the tribe’s income and into medical facilities, education and better housing.
Wilma’s work was very successful. But if you think she led a charmed life, please think again. For she succeeded DESPITE nearly being killed in an automobile accident in 1979, that required extensive hospitalization, 17 operations and years of intense physical therapy.
In 1990, when Wilma’s kidneys were failing, she was on the razor’s edge of death, surviving only because of a kidney transplant from an older brother. She would require medical assistance and medications for the rest of her life.
Wilma also lived with myasthenia gravis, a severe neuromuscular disease that causes muscular weakness and fatigue, and she also battled breast cancer and lymphoma.
But despite these severe problems, Wilma was an outstanding Chief and was re-elected in 1987 and in 1991, when she was re-elected, she captured 83 per cent of the vote. But in 1995, due to the severity of her health problems, she declined to run for another term.
Under her leadership, the Cherokee Nation had grown from 68,000 members to 170,000, as people who were at least in part Cherokee proudly joined the tribe. Today, there are 290,000 members, making the Cherokee Nation second in size only to the Navajos.
Given her numerous accomplishments, Wilma met with three U.S. Presidents and was awarded the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. President Clinton presented it to her in 1998.
But In 2010, Wilma’s severe health problems finally caught up with her and she passed away in her home, from pancreatic cancer at the age of 64. In her final years, she was actively involved in tribal affairs, and mediated top level tribal disputes. She was also a guest professor at Dartmouth College.
In her personal life, Wilma had married Cherokee activist Charlie Soap in 1986 and over the years had become not only a mother, but a grandmother and was devoted to her family. This devotion included her mother Clara, who survives her as well.
Wilma is also survived by the Cherokee people, whose pride and traditions, and whose standard of living she played such an important role in re-establishing. And today, she may have touched your life as well.
Success Tip of the Week:
As Wilma showed us, whatever our afflictions, whatever our limitations, we can accomplish the extraordinary if we are determined to do so.
If you would like to read more about Wilma, please see “Mankiller: A Chief and Her People,” a biography she wrote in 1993, with author Michael Wallis. She also authored and edited “Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women,” in 2004.
In the next KazanToday:
A mysterious mountain man who ran an unusual business.
*Her New York Times obituary, from which this quote was taken, may also interest you: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/07/us/07mankiller.html