First Female Chief of Cherokee Nation
Wilma Mankiller, fully Wilma Pearl Mankiller
First Female Chief of Cherokee Nation
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.
One of the things my parents taught me, and I'll always be grateful as a gift, is to not ever let anybody else define me; that for me to define myself . . . and I think that helped me a lot in assuming a leadership position.
I had no job, very little money, no car, had no idea what I was going to do, but knew it was time to go home.
Prior to my election, young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up and become chief.
I learned a long time ago that I can't control the challenges the creator sends my way, but I can control the way I think about them and deal with them.
She likened her job to running a small country, a medium corporation, and being a social worker.
I think the most important issue we have as a people is what we started, and that is to begin to trust our own thinking again and belive in ourselves enough to think that we can articulate our own vision of the future and then work to make sure that that vision becomes a reality.
The happiest people I've ever met, regardless of their profession, their social standing, or their economic status, are people that are fully engaged in the world around them. The most fulfilled people are the ones who get up every morning and stand for something larger than themselves. They are the people who care about others, who will extend a helping hand to someone in need or will speak up about an injustice when they see it.
I want to be remembered as the person who helped us restore faith in ourselves.
The secret of our success is that we never, never give up.
A lot of young girls have looked to their career paths and have said they'd like to be chief. There's been a change in the limits people see.
If we're ever going to collectively begin to grapple with the problems that we have collectively, we're going to have to move back the veil and deal with each other on a more human level.
There are a whole lot of historical factors that have played a part in our being where we are today, and I think that to even to begin to understand our contemporary issues and contemporary problems, you have to understand a little bit about that history.
A significant number of people believe tribal people still live and dress as they did 300 years ago. During my tenure as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, national news agencies requesting interviews sometimes asked if they could film a tribal dance or if I would wear traditional tribal clothing for the interview. I doubt they asked the president of the United States to dress like a pilgrim for an interview.
If you argue with a fool, someone passing by will not be able to tell who is the fool and who is not.
There are the extremes on both sides. There are those who have turned their backs on being Cherokee. Then we have a few who refuse to speak much English and think children should only play stickball, not baseball or football. They are suspicious of the non-Indian world, thinking too much assimilation will cause one to stop thinking Cherokee.
America would be a better place if leaders would do more long-term thinking.
In Iroquois society, leaders are encouraged to remember seven generations in the past and consider seven generations in the future when making decisions that affect the people.
There were a significant number of people in this country that were still questioning whether Indians were human.
An Indian is an Indian regardless of the degree of Indian blood or which little government card they do or do not possess.
Individually and collectively, Cherokee people possess an extraordinary ability to face down adversity and continue moving forward.
Though many non-Native Americans have learned very little about us, over time we have had to learn everything about them. We watch their films, read their literature, worship in their churches, and attend their schools. Every third-grade student in the United States is presented with the concept of Europeans discovering America as a "New World" with fertile soil, abundant gifts of nature, and glorious mountains and rivers. Only the most enlightened teachers will explain that this world certainly wasn't new to the millions of indigenous people who already lived here when Columbus arrived.
But what I learned from my experience in living in a community of almost all African-American people, and what I learned from my experience in living in my own community in Oklahoma before the relocation is that poor people have a much, much greater capacity for solving their own problems than most people give them credit for.
It should be remembered that hundreds of people of African ancestry also walked the Trail of Tears with the Cherokee during the forced removal of 1838-1839. Although we know about the terrible human suffering of our native people and the members of other tribes during the removal, we rarely hear of those black people who also suffered.
We are a people with many, many social indicators of decline and an awful lot of problems, so in the fifties they decided to mainstream us, to try to take us away from the tribal land-base and the tribal culture, get us into the cities.