Native Village Youth and Education News
November, 2009   Volume 1

Wilma Mankiller: First Woman Cherokee Chief
Condensed by Native Village

Former Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller was honored by AARP this summer as one of the nation’s extraordinary older women. Mankiller, 63, looked back 40 years to share her experiences.

“The watershed event in my life was when native students occupied Alcatraz in November 1969,” she recalled. “When I took the boat out to Alcatraz with my two young daughters, my life moved in a different direction and I never looked back.” 

Alcatraz was an abandoned federal penitentiary. With Thanksgiving approaching, a small band of American Indian activists boated to occupy the island. They cited an old treaty, which provided that unused federal land should return to the native people. The stand-off with government authorities lasted 19 months.

It was at Alcatraz that she first heard native leaders and saw native people stand up to the U.S. government over their rights. Witnessing the Alcatraz occupation reawakened Wilma's Cherokee connections.

“Inspired by Alcatraz,” Mankiller recalled, “I began working as a volunteer with the Pit River Tribe as they struggled to regain their ancestral lands. That work eventually led me back to my own Cherokee community in rural Eastern Oklahoma.”

Wilma became the first member of her family to attend college. After years of activism and working for her tribe, Wilma was elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nations in the 1980s.  During her decade of leadership, she promoted health clinics, youth programs, and other projects to improve infrastructure and foster development.

 “The biggest issue for native people across the board is the fact that most Americans know very little about native people,” she stated. “Without any historical knowledge -- or cultural context -- it's impossible to understand our issues.”

She now spends time encouraging greater philanthropic participation in Native American issues and organization.“ My primary message is that native women share some of the same challenges as other women but there are also differences,” she said.  "My concept of women’s role has dramatically changed and deepened over the course of the past four decades. When I was young, women were not expected to become senators, run major corporations, or even become president of the United States."

According to the National Congress of American Indians, the number of top women leaders has almost doubled in the past few years. They cite education, professional work experience, increased divorce rates and single-home parents have compelled women to enhance managerial skills and community involvement.

"[Today], of the approximately 560 tribal governments in the United States, more than 130 are led by women," Mankiller says.  "When native women assume leadership positions, they take a step forward for women and a step into tribal tradition at the same time,”

Encouraged by the interest that Native American youth are exhibiting in their heritage, Mankiller commented, “They are using every technological tool available to them today, but they are also interested in maintaining their culture, a strong sense of who they are as young native people.

Learn more about Wilma and her involvement with The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.
Wilma Mankiller

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