Wilma Mankiller

It's Hard to See the Future with Tears in Your Eyes


To commemorate its 20th anniversary, the American Indian Studies Programs (AISP) at the University of Arizona staged a speakers series entitled "Poetics and Politics." Launching the series was Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee), a nationally renowned Native leader, author, and community development specialist.

The following is a transcript of her talk, which delved into issues of Native leadership, identity and self-sufficiency.

Resource Type

Mankiller, Wilma. "It's Hard to See the Future with Tears in Your Eyes." Red Ink: A Native American Student Publication. Vol. 9, No. 2. American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 2001: 132-136. Article.

From the Rebuilding Native Nations Course Series: "The Role of Bureaucracies in Nation Building"

Native Nations Institute

Native leaders discuss the critical role that bureaucracies play in Native nations' efforts to achieve their nation-building and community development priorities.

Native Nations

Giff, Urban. "A Capable Bureaucracy: The Key to Good Government" (Episode 6). Native Nation Building television/radio series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy and the UA Channel, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 2006. Television program.

LaPlante, Jr., Leroy. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. August 12, 2010. Interview.

Mankiller, Wilma. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 29, 2008. Interview.

Pico, Anthony. "Building Great Programs in a Political Setting." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 10, 2004. Presentation.

Urban Giff:

"Well, I once equated that to and compared it to the older customs of tribes, my tribe included as well as other tribes, in which the villages of the tribe were safeguarded by sentries and warriors that were away from the villages and they sounded the alarm in case there was danger and they were effective in safeguarding the tribe, the people, their assets. I equated that and compared it to the modern-day tribes. We still need warriors and sentries, but in the field of accounting, in the field of law, in the field of human resources administration, in the field of management, all the functions that a government has to operate under, and that we need qualified warriors in those areas and that's what will benefit the tribes. As the ancient warriors did and benefited their tribes, we still need warriors today."

Wilma Mankiller:

"When I think about developing communities in a real sense, not in an abstract sense, but taking a community and developing the economy, or developing water systems or community buildings or health care or whatever, what I think is that you have to have a strong enabling center to do that. The people who do community development and develop the economy can't go out and do good work unless they have a strong enabling center. And so, again, it's important to have a good accounting system, a good administrative system, and a strong tribal government in order to do that work."

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"You gotta have that infrastructure in place because it's one thing to take a vision and philosophies in terms of how we want to be, but you gotta have the practical policies and infrastructure that get us from point A to point B."

Anthony Pico:

"As Indian nations increasingly take over management of social and economic programs and natural resources on our reservations, as we undertake ambitious development programs or government tasks become more financially and administratively complex, our government infrastructure becomes more essential to overall success. By infrastructure I mean those bodies and directives that help keep the fire lit while the hunters are on the trail. It's the glue that keeps things going when the leadership changes or there's a political crisis. It means attracting and keeping loyal employees and developing and retaining skilled personnel. It requires establishing effective civil service systems that protect employees from politics. It means putting into place solid personnel grievance systems and that decisions are implemented and recorded effectively and reliably. It ensures that businesses and future government officials do not have to reinvent the wheel or lose momentum, but rather are able to build on the success and avoid the failures."

Wilma Mankiller: What it Means to be an Indigenous Person in the 21st Century: A Cherokee Woman's Perspective

Indigenous Scholars Lecture Series

Former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller discusses the common misperceptions that people have about Indigenous people in the 21st century, and the efforts of Indigenous peoples to maintain their identity, cultures, values, and ways of life.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Mankiller, Wilma. "What it Means to be an Indigenous Person in the 21st Century: A Cherokee Woman's Perspective." Vine Deloria, Jr. Indigenous Scholars Lecture Series, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 30, 2008. Presentation.

Thank you very much Tsianina [Lomawaima] for inviting me and for working on all the details to get me here. And I also want to thank Teresa wherever Teresa is who’s been in charge of taking care of a lot of logistics and has done a great job. And how I came to be here is that I mentioned to Tom [Holm] one time -- we’re both on this commission that he mentioned -- and I mentioned to him how much I love Arizona. And I told him. ‘If I ever had to live any place other than my home and the Cherokee Nation, I’d live in Arizona.’ And he said, ‘Well, we need to get you to Arizona then.’ And so I also wanted to thank Tom for the invitation to come here today and be with all of you. And I want to thank you. I was just mentioning to Tom how honored I am always when I do public speaking that people would leave their home and their family and their other activities and come to spend an evening just so we can have dialogue together and get to know one another, and I really appreciate that very much and want to express that appreciation to you.

For me it’s an incredible honor to offer remarks about what it means to be an Indigenous person in the 21st century as a part of the Vine Deloria series of events that are occurring here on campus. Many of us who had the privilege of knowing Vine are still trying to figure out how to live in a world without his physical presence and I believe that we can best honor him by doing exactly what this university is doing and that’s continuing to challenge the stereotypes and the misperceptions about Native people that still exist in this country. I also think that we can honor him by getting up every morning and making sure that we stand for something larger than ourselves. I think that’s a way of honoring Vine. And I also think that we can honor him by continuing the fight, his fight, our fight for treaty rights and for tribal sovereignty and also continuing the fight for our cultural survival.

So let me begin by saying that I don’t speak for all Indigenous people or even for all Cherokee people. The thoughts that I share with you tonight are derived entirely from my own experience. And most of my remarks tonight will concern Indigenous people of this country, but I have visited Indigenous people in lots of other places including China. There are very distinct ethnic communities in China, in Ecuador, in South Africa, in New Zealand and in Brazil. There are over 300 million Indigenous people in virtually every region of the world including the Sami peoples of Scandinavia, the Maya of Guatemala, numerous tribal groups in the Amazonian rainforest, the Dalits in the mountains of southern India, the San and Qua in southern Africa, aboriginal people in Australia and of course the hundreds and hundreds of Indigenous people in Mexico, Central and South America as well as here in this land that is now called America. There is enormous diversity among communities of Indigenous people, each of which has its own culture, language, history and unique way of life. Indigenous people across the globe share some common values derived from an understanding that their lives are part of and inseparable from the natural world around them.

Onondaga faith keeper Oren Lyons who spoke here recently once said, ‘Our knowledge is profound and comes from living in one place for untold generations. Our knowledge comes from watching the sun rise in the east and set in the west from the same place over great sections of time. We are as familiar with the land, river and great seas that surround us as we are with the faces of our mothers. Indeed we call the earth [Native language], Our Mother, from which all life springs. This deeply felt sense of interdependence with all other living things fuels a duty and a responsibility to conserve and protect the natural world that is a sacred provider of food, of medicine and spiritual sustenance. Hundreds of seasonal ceremonies are regularly conducted by Indigenous people to express thanksgiving for the gifts of nature and to acknowledge the seasonal changes and to remind people of their obligations to each other and to the earth.’

And the stories continue. In many Indigenous communities around the world, traditional stories embody the collective memory of the people. These stories often describe how things were in the distant past, what happened to cause the world to be as it is today and some stories project far into the future. The prophecies of a number of Indigenous groups predict that the world will end when people are no long capable of protecting nature or restoring its balance. Two of the most widely quoted prophecies are those of the Hopi and the Iroquois, both of which have long predicted that the world will end if human beings forget their responsibilities to the natural world. These prophecies seem particularly important in this era of increasing alarm about the catastrophic effects of climate change and questions, even questions about the long-term survival of humankind. Indigenous people are not the only people on earth who understand that they’re interconnected with all living things. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said, ‘At some point during this journey, we lost our feeling of connectedness to the rest of nature. We now dare to wonder, ‘Are we so unique and powerful as to be essentially separate from the earth?’’

There are many thousands of people from different ethnic groups who care deeply about the environment and fight every day to protect the earth. The difference between non-Indigenous environmentalists and Indigenous people who live close to the land is that Indigenous people have the benefit, the unique benefit of having ceremonies that regularly remind them of their responsibilities to each other and their responsibilities to the land. So they remain close to the land not only in the way they live but in their hearts and in the way they view the world.

To me, sometimes when I talk to mainstream environmentalists it’s almost like environmentalism is an intellectual exercise. The difference when you talk to people who, traditional Indigenous people who live close to the land is that they feel that the connection to the land and their responsibility to take care of it is a sacred duty, it’s not an intellectual exercise. When women like Pauline Whitesinger, an elder at Black Mountain or at Big Mountain, and Carrie Dann, a Western Shoshone land rights activist speak of preserving the land for future generations, they’re not talking about just future generations of humans, they are talking literally about future generations of all living things. That’s a profound difference. Pauline and Carrie live with the land and they understand the relative insignificance of human beings in the totality of the universe.

When all human beings, Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people lived closer to the land, there was a greater understanding of the interdependence between humans and the land. Author and feminist Gloria Steinem observes that ‘Once, indeed nearly for all the time that human beings have walked this earth, you and I would have been living very differently in small bands, raising our children together as if each child were our own and migrating with the seasons. There were no nations, no lines drawn in the sand. Instead there were migratory paths and watering places with trade and culture blossoming wherever the paths came together in patterns that spread over the continents like lace.’

So what’s happened in the non-Native world is that there’s an absence of the stories and the ceremonies to remind them, and so they have no memory of that time when they lived very close to the land and were responsible for one another and for the land. They’re not only distant from the land and from themselves, they have little understanding of their place in the world.

I remember one time being, I live in a very rural area at the end of a dirt road within the Cherokee Nation and so very conscious of seasonal changes and of things that are going on in the natural world. And I remember once being in New York City at the magical time of dusk and watching the people. Not a single person on a crowded street in New York City looked at or acknowledged the sunset over the Hudson River or even, I imagine, thought about the gift of another day. It made me wonder how many urban dwellers, millions of urban dwellers go about their lives without ever really seeing or thinking about the miracle of the sun rising in the morning and setting again in the evening.

Aside from a different view of their relationship to the natural world, many of the world’s Indigenous people also share a sometimes fragmented but still very present sense of responsibility for one another. Cooperation has always been necessary for the survival of tribal people and even today in the more traditional communities cooperation takes precedence over competition. It’s really quite miraculous that a sense of sharing and reciprocity continues into the 21st century given the staggering amount of adversity Indigenous people have faced. Within many communities at home and I think in tribal communities around the country the greatest respect, the most respected people are not those who have amassed great material wealth or achieved great personal success. The greatest respect is reserved for those people who help other people, people who understand that as Indigenous people we’re born into a community, a specific tribal group and that our entire lives play themselves out within a set of reciprocal relationships. The people that understand that are the most respected people.

There’s evidence of this sense of reciprocity in some Cherokee traditional communities. My husband Charlie Soap leads a widespread self-help movement among the Cherokee in which low-income volunteers work to build walking trails, community centers, sports complexes, water lines and even houses. This self-help movement, in which everybody gets together and helps each other, taps into the traditional value of cooperation for the sake of the common good.

Besides a connection to the land and this sense of reciprocity, the world’s Indigenous people are also bound by the common experience of being ‘discovered’ and subjected to colonial expansion into their territories that led to the loss of an incalculable number of lives and millions and millions of acres of land and resources. The most basic rights of Indigenous people were disregarded and they were subjected to a series of policies that were designed to assimilate them into colonial society and culture. Too often, the policies resulted in poverty, high infant mortality, rampant unemployment, substance abuse and all its attendant problems.

The stories are shockingly similar all over the world. When I first read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which chronicled the systematic destruction of an African tribe’s social, cultural and economic structure, it sounded all too familiar. Take the land, discredit the leaders, ridicule the traditional healers, send the children off to distant boarding schools; very familiar story. And then I read a report called The Stolen Generation about aboriginal children in Australia who were forcibly removed from their families and placed in boarding schools.

My own father and my Aunt Sally were taken from my grandfather by the U.S. government and placed in a government boarding school when they were very small, very young. So that story is very familiar to Cherokee people and to tribal people all over the world. Indigenous people everywhere on the planet are connected both by our values and by our oppression.

When contemplating the contemporary challenges and problems faced by Indigenous people worldwide, it’s important to remember that the roots of many contemporary social, economic and political problems can be found in colonial policies and those policies continue today across the globe. In the Amazonian rainforest, Indigenous people are continually battling large scale destruction of their traditional homes in the forest by multi-national mining, oil and timber companies. Some small Amazonian Indigenous communities are on the verge of extinction as the result of the murder of their leaders and the forced dispersal of their members. And to make matters worse, some well-meaning environmentalists who should be natural allies focus almost exclusively on the land and appear not to see or hear the people at all.

When I was in Brazil, one of the people there was quite humorous and he said, ‘There was a time when a lot of famous musicians, American and English musicians, would wear T-shirts that said 'Save the Rainforest.'‘ And he said, ‘You never once saw a T-shirt that said 'Save the People of the Rainforest.'‘ Though the people of the forest, the people who live in the forest and have lived there for thousands of years possess the best knowledge about how to live with and sustain the forest.

When you think about it, of the fact that folks focus on the land and not the people, it’s not surprising really because Indigenous people are not in the consciousness of many, of the people in the larger society. There’s too little accurate information available about us, available in educational institutions, in literature, in films or in the popular culture. I believe that the battle to protect the human and land rights of Indigenous people is made immeasurably more difficult by the fact that so few people know much about either the history or contemporary lives of our people and without any kind of history or cultural context, it’s almost impossible for outsiders to understand Indigenous issues. And the information that is available is often produced by non-Native people; some of which is enormously helpful. Some of the anthropological work has helped tribes restore, some tribal people restore their languages and that sort of thing. So some of the non-Native literature is enormously helpful, but too much of it is written by people who spend 15 minutes in a tribal community, become an expert, and then go out and write a book or produce a film.

So there’s a lot of inaccurate information out there. And the lack of accurate information creates a void, which is often filled with nonsensical stereotypes, which either vilify Indigenous people as troubled descendants of savage peoples on the one hand or they romanticize them as innocent children of nature, spiritual but incapable of higher thought on the other hand. Whether the stereotype romanticizes or vilifies people, it’s still very harmful I believe.

Then the stereotypes about Indigenous women are particularly appalling. While the role of Indigenous women in the family and the community, now and in the past, differs from community to community, women have always played very significant roles in most tribal societies. Yet in the media and in the larger society the power, the strength, the complexity of Indigenous women is rarely acknowledged or rarely recognized.

I believe that these public perceptions of tribal people will change in the future because Indigenous leaders now understand that there is a direct link between public perception and public policy and they understand that they must frame the issues for themselves. If Indigenous people don’t frame the issues for themselves, their opponents most certainly will. In the future, as more Indigenous people become filmmakers, writers, historians, museum curators and journalists, they’ll be able to use a dazzling array of technological tools to tell their own stories in their own voice in their own way.

Once a journalist asked me whether people in the U.S. had trouble accepting the government of the Cherokee Nation during my tenure as principal chief. I was a little surprised by the question. The government of the Cherokee Nation predated the government of the United States and the Cherokee Nation had treaties with other countries before it executed a treaty with one of the first U.S. colonies. So that question really surprised me.

During the colonial era and before, many tribal leaders sent delegations to meet with the Spanish, with the English and French in an effort to protect their lands and rights. And these tribal leaders, they would travel to foreign lands with a trusted interpreter and they took maps that had been painstakingly drawn by hand to show their lands to other heads of state. They also took along gifts, letters and proclamations. And what’s very painful now is to look back in history and see that though the tribal leaders themselves, when they traveled to these other places, thought they were being dealt with as heads of state and as equals, historical records indicate that they were sometimes viewed as objects of curiosity and sometimes a great deal of disdain though they themselves, the tribal leaders, were very earnest.

The journalist with the question about Cherokee government needn’t apologize for her lack of knowledge about tribal governments in the U.S. Many people in the U.S. know very little about us though they’ve been living in our former towns and villages now for hundreds of years.

Again, it’s impossible to even contemplate the contemporary lives or future of Indigenous people without some basic knowledge of tribal history. [I’m going to skip some of this history because you probably know all of this.] Tribal governments in the U.S. exercise their range of sovereign rights and it’s interesting because one of the most common misperceptions in the larger culture is that all tribal governments are the same or even worse that all Indian people are the same or that we speak some kind of common ‘Indian’ language. And so one of the tasks I think we have is to remind people that each tribal government is unique and that different tribal governments exercise their sovereign rights in different ways. And some tribal governments have gaming facilities, some have a number of cooperative agreements with the state governments, other tribal governments believe that we are giving up sovereignty to execute any kind of government with a statement government so they don’t engage in those governments. And there are some governments like the Onondaga that have, do not do any kind of gaming, don’t believe in gaming, and they don’t receive any kind of federal funding at all, none. And so they, and they have their traditional government that they’ve had since the beginning of time. But by and large there are many tribal governments in this country now that have their own judicial systems -- most do -- operate their own police force, they run their own schools, they administer their own clinics and hospitals and operate a wide range of business enterprises and there are now more than two dozen tribally controlled community colleges. And the interesting thing is that all these advancements that tribes have made benefit everybody in the community not just tribal people. And the history and contemporary lives and future of tribal governments is intertwined with that of their neighbors.

And even within there’s a lot of difference between various tribal groups, each of which is very distinct, has its own culture, language and history but even within tribal groups there’s a great deal of diversity. And in our tribe, members of our tribe, the Cherokee tribe, are very stratified socially, economically and culturally. There are several thousand Cherokee people that continue to speak the Cherokee language and live in Cherokee communities in rural northeastern Oklahoma. On the other end of the spectrum, there are enrolled members of the Cherokee Nation who’ve never even visited the Cherokee Nation and so there’s a great deal of stratification in our tribe and I believe in other tribes as well.

Each Indigenous community is unique just as each community in the larger society is unique. Outside our communities, I think too many people view Indigenous people through a very narrow, one-dimensional lens and really we’re very interesting and very complex and we’re certainly multi-dimensional human beings that rarely do people outside of our communities see us in that way.

So what does the future hold for Indigenous people across the globe and what challenges will they face moving further into the 21st century? I think that to see the future of Indigenous people one needs only to look at the past. If we as a people have been able to survive such a staggering loss of land, of rights, of resources and lives, how can I not be optimistic that we will survive whatever challenges lie ahead in the next 100 or even 500 years and that we can project far into the future and still have viable Indigenous communities. If we’ve survived what we’ve survived so far, I’m confident we can survive whatever lies ahead. Without question, the combined efforts of government and various religious groups to eradicate traditional knowledge system has had a profoundly negative impact on the culture as well as the social and economic systems of Indigenous people. But again, if we’ve been able to hold onto our sense of community, our sense of interdependence, our generosity of spirit, our languages, our culture, our ceremonies, our medicine, despite everything, how can I not be optimistic about the future? And though some of the original languages, ceremonies and medicine has been irretrievably lost, the ceremonial fires of many Indigenous people across the globe have survived all the upheaval. Sometimes Indigenous communities after major upheaval and removal have almost had to reinvent themselves as a people but they’ve never given up their sense of responsibility to one another and to the land. It is this sense of interdependence I believe that has sustained tribal people thus far and I believe it will sustain them well into the future.

The world’s changing, but we can adapt to change. Indigenous people know about change and have proven time and time again they can adapt to change. No matter where Native people go in the world, they take with them a strong sense of values, a strong sense of who they are and so they can fully interact with the larger society and participate in the larger society around them but still have a sense of themselves. If you look at some of the people like Vine Deloria, or [N.] Scott Momaday, who won a Pulitzer Prize, or the Chickasaw gentleman, who was an astronaut, or the women who, including Maria Tall Chief, who became prima ballerinas, no matter where those people went they took with them a strong sense of who they are.

One of the things that I remember interviewing for my book LaDonna Harris and one of the things that she said strike me. She said, ‘You know, when I was living in Washington as a Senator’s wife, I did the same thing as other Senate wives did.’ But she said -- it didn’t matter who all was talking to her or what situation she was in -- 'I was Comanche and when, whatever was going on around me, I filtered that through my Comanche values and my sense of who I was. I could live in Washington in a similar house as the other Senate wives and do similar things but I never lost my sense of who I was as a Comanche woman.’ She said, ‘I’ve always hated that term that we live in two worlds.’ She said, ‘My world is that I’m a Comanche woman.’ So it was very interesting and I think a lot of people do that. And for the young people here today that are contemplating careers, it doesn’t matter whether you become a physician or a professor or a lawyer or if you live away from your homelands and can’t participate regularly in ceremonies. You can take with you the knowledge and the values wherever you go.

I believe that one of the great challenges for Indigenous people globally and particularly here in the U.S. will be in the future and now will be to develop practical models to capture, maintain and pass on traditional knowledge system to future generations. When we all lived close to one another, it was easy to pass on the knowledge. Many tribal groups even had people who were designated to remember things. It was their job to remember things and pass them on. But since people are very mobile and the world’s changed so much, we have to come up with new models to capture and maintain the knowledge and pass it on to future generations. There’s nothing in the world, nothing that we can learn anywhere that can replace that solid sense of continuity and knowing that a genuine understanding of traditional knowledge brings. We have to preserve that and we have to pass that on to future generations. There are many communities that are working on discreet aspects of culture such as language or medicine, but in my view it’s the entire system of knowledge that needs to be maintained and not just for Indigenous people but for the world at large.

Perhaps in the future Indigenous people who have an abiding and deeply held belief that all living things are related and interdependent can help policymakers understand how completely irrational it is to destroy the very natural world that sustains all life. Regrettably, in the future the battle for human and land rights will continue but the future does look somewhat better. Last year, after 30 years of advocacy by Indigenous people, the United Nations finally passed a resolution supporting the basic inherent rights of Indigenous people. The resolution by the way was passed over the objections of the United States government. The challenge I think for people working in international work now will be to make sure the provisions of the resolution are honored and the rights of Indigenous people all over the world are indeed protected. And the efforts of tribal governments in this country to take full advantage of the self-governance and self-determination policies of the U.S. government are once again a testament to the fact that Indigenous people simply do better when they have control of their own lives.

In the case of my own people, we’re an example of what happens when you have control and then when you lose control. In the case of the Cherokees, after we were forcibly removed by the United States military from the southeast to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, we picked ourselves up and rebuilt our nations. We started some of the first schools west of the Mississippi, Indian or non-Indian, and built schools for the higher education of women. We printed our own newspapers in Cherokee and English and were at that time more literate than our neighbors in Texas and Arkansas and actually I think we probably still are. Then in the early 20th century, the federal government tried to abolish the Cherokee Nation and within two decades -- when we didn’t have a functioning central tribal government -- we went from being one of the most literate groups of people to having one of the lowest educational attainment levels of any group in eastern Oklahoma. And so that’s a direct testament to what happens when we have control and when we don’t have control.

For the past 35 years, we’ve been in an effort to revitalize the Cherokee Nation and now we once again run our own school and have an extensive array of successful education programs. The youth at our Indian school, the Sequoyah High School, recently won the state, the team, a student won the state trigonometry contest and several are Gates Millennium Scholars. Again, we do better when we have control over our own destiny. And a couple of years ago Harvard University completed over a decade of comprehensive research, which was published in a guardedly hopeful book entitled The State of Native Nations. The research indicates that most of the social and economic indicators are moving in a positive direction. Many tribal governments are strong, educational attainment levels are improving, and there is a cultural renaissance occurring in many tribal communities.

Within some Indigenous communities, there are conversations about what it means to be a traditional Indigenous person now and what it will mean in the future. I am an Indigenous woman of the 21st century, and I’m so glad I was born Cherokee and that my life has indeed played itself out within a set of reciprocal relationships in my family and community.

To me, being an Indigenous person in the 21st century means being part of a group of people with the most valuable and ancient knowledge on the planet, a people who still have a direct relationship with and sense of responsibility to the land and to other people.

To me, being an Indigenous person of the 21st century means being part of a community that faces a daunting set of challenges and problems and oppression and yet the communities, our communities find so many moments of grace and comfort and joy in traditional stories, in the language and in ceremonies.

I think, to me, being an Indigenous person of the 21st century, all these young smart people getting an education here at the University of Arizona, being an Indigenous person of the 21st century means trusting our own thinking again and not only articulating our own vision of the future clearly, but having within our communities and our people the skill set and the leadership ability to make those visions a reality.

Being an Indigenous person in the 21st century means -- despite everything -- still being able to dream of a future in which all people will support the human rights and self-determination of Indigenous people. We still have that dream and we still have that hope. Land can be colonized and resources can be colonized but dreams can never be colonized. I always think about the time of my grandfather and the early part of the 20th century, during that bad time when our central government was in disarray, and these people never gave up the dream of having a strong central tribal government and a strong community and they would ride horses to each other’s houses throughout the Cherokee Nation and collect money in a mason jar to send a delegate to Washington to remind the leaders in Washington of their obligation, their treaty obligations to Cherokee people. So our people never gave up their dream and will never give up their dream.

Being an Indigenous person in the 21st century means sharing traditional knowledge and best practices with Indigenous communities all over the world using the iPhone, the Blackberry, MySpace, YouTube and every other technological tool that becomes available to us.

Being an Indigenous person in the 21st century means becoming a physician or a scientist or even an astronaut who will leave her footprints on the moon and then return home to participate in ceremonies her people have had since the beginning of time. That’s what it means to be an Indigenous person in the 21st century.

And finally, to be an Indigenous person of the 21st century means to forego the feeling of going around with anger in our hearts over past injustices and it means not becoming paralyzed by the inaction we see around us or the totality of problems we face in our communities. We can’t be paralyzed by that and we can’t be angry over past injustice. I think it’s important for us to keep our view just as our ancestors did. We’re here because our ancestors thought about us and cared about us and fought for us. So it’s our job now to keep our vision fixed on the future. That’s what we need to do.

I really love my favorite proverb, which I’ll leave you with is a Mohawk proverb and because they teach their young people not to always be angry and focus on injustice or not be paralyzed by what’s going on around them, the problems they now face. So what they tell their young people is that you need to be thinking about the future and ‘it’s hard to see the future with tears in your eyes.’ I love that proverb. So I’ll leave you with that proverb, ‘ It’s hard to see the future with tears in your eyes.’ And thank you again for being here and open it up for some time for questions and answers. Thank you.


From the Rebuilding Native Nations Course Series: "Leaders Are Educators"

Native Nations Institute

Native leaders and scholars stress that for Native nation leaders to be effective at advancing their nation's priorities, they need to do more than just make decisions -- they need to educate and consult the citizens they serve.

Native Nations

Kalt, Joseph P. "Rebuilding Healthy Nations." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27, 2007. Presentation.

Kendall-Miller, Heather. Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27, 2007. Presentation.

Mankiller, Wilma. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 29, 2008. Interview.

McGhee, Robert. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. October 10, 2012. Interview.

Miles, Rebecca. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 23, 2011. Interview.

Norris, Jr., Ned. "Perspectives on Leadership and Nation Building." Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 26, 2008. Presentation.

Pinkham, Jaime. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 26, 2009. Interview.

Sherman, Gerald. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 26, 2009. Interview.

Heather Kendall-Miller:

"Leadership goes beyond just having an active role in making things happen. It also requires the ability to inspire others to take action."

Joseph P. Kalt:

"There's one more thing, and it's leadership. When we say that, we don't mean necessarily leadership as decision-maker, we mean leader as educator. Someone carries into any community the ideas, the ways of doing things, the new ways of doing things, the old ways of doing things. And it's leaders that do that. Not just elected and appointed officials, but all the dimensions of leadership. And the challenge that you face -- you all are leaders. You got out of bed this morning, or yesterday you flew here. You're not here because you're crawling under a rock and hiding. You're here [because] you're leaders, and the challenge is to carry these messages of effective nation building into communities. And the more you do that, what we find, the more successful the leadership of a community is in getting on the same page and talking about the fundamental nature of these needs for running things ourselves, founding them on our own institutions that are culturally legitimate. Then suddenly, the community starts to stand behind you and then you get stability and then you build a community and then the kids stay home instead of moving away and you've rebuilt a nation."

Wilma Mankiller:

"But I do believe that an essential part of leadership is -- besides all the things like making sure you're working on legislative issues and legal issues and health and education and jobs and all that sort of thing -- is to try to help people understand their own history and understand where we are within the context of that history and to believe in ourselves; to look at our past and see what we've done as a people and to remind people that if they want to see our future they just simply need to look at our past to believe in ourselves, to believe in our intellectual ability, to believe in our skills, to believe in our ability to think up solutions to our own problems. I think that is critical to our survival."

Gerald Sherman:

"I think nation-building leaders need to first just start talking nation building and getting people to think about it a lot and trying to win other people over to get other people to understand what it's all about because what I've seen is you'll get one leader in and they'll understand some of these things but one leader it's hard to make a system change. I've seen it in like the Bureau of Indian Affairs, they pull in some good people to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs thinking that they can make a change but there's a very strong system that exists there and they just can't change it."

Jaime Pinkham:

"When you look at the issues facing tribal communities, issues about per capita distribution, blood quantum, constitutional reform and others, those are very difficult issues that are communities are facing and quite honestly they could be wedge issues that would eventually fractionate communities and so doing education within the community must come first to talk about nation building, to overcome these challenges. I think when there was a time when tribes looked at the greatest threats were from the Colonials and from the Cavalry, then it was from the states but really my fear is that the greatest threats because of these wedge issues that are really pressing on our communities, the greatest threats may come from the inside. And so if we don't do a good job of developing the sense of nationhood within our communities through education and empowerment that the challenges are going to come from the inside not from the outside."

Rebecca Miles:

"Engagement, getting engaged with your people frequently. A lot of times you see tribal council that the first time that they're chewed out they just, it's just now we're in this hole and we're not coming out. And that happens and it's really at no fault of a tribal leader because you can only get chewed out so many times, but instead you do have to have the courage, you chose to run, face your people, get them involved to the extent of, no, they're not micromanaging you as the government, but you've got to inform them and know what it is you need to inform them about. There's just some things that are not...you're wasting everybody's time. That's just not something you inform people about. There's other things that you want to hear from them about. If you want to change enrollment, you better talk to your people. If you're going to make a big decision like our water settlement, go out and get your input from your people and if they have the wrong perception, then whose job is it to change that or work to change it? It's yours, and a lot of times tribal leaders do not think it's their job to do, to be that public person and it very much is your job. You've got to get out there and talk to people and you have to be able to tell them things that they don't want to hear."

Robert McGhee:

"I do believe that at first you are an educator. You are educating your other general council members, well your other council members, especially if it's an idea that you're proposing, or if it's an issue or a concern that you have, you're educating them. But you're also educating your tribal members. Like I said before, in order to make, have a strong government and to have a government that's going to last and to have focus and change, you're going to need the support of the members. And I think if you have any opportunity that you can educate, I think you should, especially on the issue. However, I think the flip side of that is being the student. And there's a lot of times that it's the general council that can educate you, it can be your elders, it can be the youth, that can educate you as a tribal leader to say, 'This is the issue impacting us.' If it's youth it's usually drugs, alcohol, or social media issues, or bullying. And if it's the elders, it's like, 'How can you provide a sustainable, in our last years, how can you make these [years] a little bit better for us?' But also, let's tell you about why this didn't work in the past. So I think they're both valuable tools. I mean you have to be an educator, you have to be a student, but I think there's always being just willing to listen."

Ned Norris, Jr.:

"'You can accomplish anything in life provided that you do not mind who gets the credit.' As leaders -- and that quote is attributed to Harry Truman -- as leaders I like to think of myself in that way. That what I have to do -- the people have entrusted in me their trust to lead them and to guide them for the term that I have been elected. As a leader, I should not ever take advantage of that trust that the people have placed in me. I should never take the position that, 'That was my idea, not yours.' I should not take the position that, 'It's my way or the highway.' As a leader, that should not -- that's not something that we should be doing as tribal leaders. The [Tohono O'odham Nation] vice chairman and I -- Isidro Lopez -- when we ran for these offices, we ran on a campaign that we say in O'odham, it says [O'odham language], and [O'odham language] translates to 'All of us together.' And what we wanted to be able to do was to bring the people together, to bring our people together, to give our people the opportunity to actively participate in the decision-making process. Too many times, we get tribal leadership that think they are going to impose those decisions on the people. We can't accomplish that, we can't accomplish what we need to accomplish if we are going to dictate to our people. That's not our purpose. Our purpose is to lead, our purpose is to work together, and our purpose is to bring our people to the table so that we can hear what they have to say."

Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times: Wilma Mankiller

Institute for Tribal Government

Produced by the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University in 2004, the landmark “Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times” interview series presents the oral histories of contemporary leaders who have played instrumental roles in Native nations' struggles for sovereignty, self-determination, and treaty rights. The leadership themes presented in these unique videos provide a rich resource that can be used by present and future generations of Native nations, students in Native American studies programs, and other interested groups.

In this interview, conducted in July 2001, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller traces her ascendancy from a child of the termination and relocation policies of the 1950s to becoming the first female elected to serve as principal chief of her nation.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Institute for Tribal Government.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Mankiller, Wilma. "Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times" (interview series). Institute for Tribal Government, Portland State University. Tahlequah, Oklahoma. July 2001. Interview.

Kathryn Harrison:

"Hello. My name is Kathryn Harrison. I am presently the Chairperson of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. I have served on my council for 21 years. Tribal leaders have influenced the history of this country since time immemorial. Their stories have been handed down from generation to generation. Their teaching is alive today in our great contemporary tribal leaders whose stories told in this series are an inspiration to all Americans both tribal and non-tribal. In particular it is my hope that Indian youth everywhere will recognize the contributions and sacrifices made by these great tribal leaders."

[Native music]


"Wilma P. Mankiller, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, was the first female in modern history to lead a major tribe. Mankiller was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1945 and today lives on the land allotted to her paternal grandfather in 1907 just after Oklahoma became a state. The family name, Mankiller, she explains is derived from the title assigned to someone who watched over Cherokee villages, a kind of warrior. Wilma Mankiller herself is a protector of her people and a kind of warrior for justice. Her goal as a community organizer and leader of the Cherokee Nation has been to help bring self-sufficiency to her people. Most of Mankiller's childhood was spent close to the land and in strong relationship with other Cherokee people. In the 1950s the Bureau of Indian Affairs encouraged the family to move to San Francisco under the Bureau's relocation program. The adjustment was extremely difficult for the Mankiller children but Wilma Mankiller was later able to benefit from participation in the social reform and liberation movements of the 1960s. She was inspired by the events of 1969 when a group of students occupied Alcatraz Island to bring attention to the concerns of tribes. Also in California her understanding of treaty rights and tribal sovereignty issues was deepened when she worked with the Pit River Tribe. Mankiller returned to her ancestral home in Oklahoma in the early 1970s. Her ideas for development in historic Cherokee communities caused Chief Ross Swimmer to take note of her work. Mankiller's work was interrupted by a near fatal accident and 17 operations. But through near-death and convalescence she emerged renewed and even more dedicated to work for her people. Chief Swimmer convinced Mankiller to run as his Deputy Chief in 1983. When Swimmer resigned to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, Mankiller assumed the duties of Chief as mandated by Cherokee law. She was strongly opposed by tribal members who did not want to be led by a woman. She ran for Chief on her own in 1987, was elected and ran and won a second term. Wilma P. Mankiller has made a great impact on her own people and other Americans as a tribal and spiritual leader. She received the Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year Award in 1987 and to her great pride one of the health clinics that she helped found bears her name. In 1998 President Clinton presented Mankiller the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In an interview conducted by the Institute for Tribal Government in July, 2001, Mankiller spoke about the historic struggles of the Cherokee people, her development as a tribal leader, her battles to win the post of Chief and the important issues for tribes today."

The Cherokee people

Wilma Mankiller:

"In 1492 we were in the southeastern part of the United States in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, a little part of Virginia, a little part of Alabama and the whole southeast. The Cherokee people I think went through a lot of different phases and a lot of different discussions about how to relate to their new neighbors. Certainly like every other tribe in the country we were forced into treaties where we always ended up ceding land and eventually lost a lot of land in the southeast just through treaties and through war and many other events. But at different periods we were at war. At other periods we had an official policy of almost accommodation where we tried to figure out how to get along with our new neighbors and whether we were in a war era or whether we were in an era of cooperation. It didn't matter, we lost our land and lost many of our rights anyway and so no matter what our official policies might have been."

The Cherokee Nation rebuilds itself after repeated injustice and assault

Wilma Mankiller:

"One of the most famous stories among the Cherokee is that when Jackson was a soldier and fighting one of the major battles that a Cherokee person actually saved his life, a Cherokee warrior saved his life and he lived to regret that. Later Jackson made his reputation as an Indian fighter and as a military man and then later when he became President, almost one of the very first acts was to try to convince the Legislature to pass the Removal Act, which eventually resulted in the Cherokees being dispossessed of their land in the southeast. Most people refer to the Cherokee removal as the Trail of Tears or the Trail Where They Cried because of the large loss of land and large loss of lives but actually all the tribes in the southeast went through the same sort of removal process. The Choctaws and the Creeks and the Chickasaws, the Seminoles, many other tribes went through the same situation. Our story I think is just the one that's more familiar. Our land where we had lived forever was given away in lotteries to White Georgians after the Cherokees were removed and this land's very different in Indian Territory than the land in the southeast. The political system, the cultural system, the medicines, the life ways, everything we'd ever known was left behind so our people arrived here with everything in disarray. Many people dead, everything familiar gone and yet what's absolutely remarkable about Cherokee people is that they almost immediately began to reform the Cherokee Nation and rebuild their families and rebuild their communities and rebuild a Nation and it's just absolutely amazing that they were able to do that given what had just occurred. So everybody helped each other. Most people were farmers and had small animals and they lived basically on a barter system where they...if one had eggs they would trade them to somebody else for milk or if one grew corn they would trade them to somebody who grew tomatoes or that sort of thing. People had a strong sense that if they were going to survive they had to rely on each other."

Life as a child at Mankiller Flats, family, community, connection to the land

Wilma Mankiller:

"My father was a full blood Cherokee who went to...attended boarding school. In those days when my father was a child they took children without permission from the parents. They literally came out and picked...to this community and picked up my aunt and picked up my father and took them to boarding school. A lot of people have stories about losing their language in school, in boarding school but my aunt and my...neither my aunt nor my father ever lost the ability to be very fluent in Cherokee. I think in part because they had each other to talk to. He had a lot of mixed experiences at boarding school but the one thing that he learned at boarding school was he learned the love of reading and of literature, which he passed on to his children. My mother is as best we can tell she says she's Heinz 57 varieties but she's Irish mostly and a little bit Dutch. She is also from this community. She went to probably maybe the seventh grade or something. Very well read, very politically astute. I guess she's what everybody would want for a mother. She is always steady, always gives her children unconditional love. My brother went to Wounded Knee and her advice to him was, ‘Well, just don't get shot.' It was mostly a life of a relationship with the land because we had a large family and a small house and no electricity or indoor plumbing or any other amenities and only one person several miles from here had a television. So our life was really very centered around the land. And we all took turns gathering water from the spring for household use and for consumption. It was the same spring that my grandfather had used and my father had used and so there was a sense of connection to the place and to the land. And so when I think of my childhood I think mostly of being outside and having a very close relationship with the land."

The family relocates to San Francisco in the 1950s

Wilma Mankiller:

"I think the Bureau of Indian Affairs basically told my father that he could have a much better life for his children if we moved away. And it seemed like a way to make sure that we were provided for and all that. That was the main sales because at the time we couldn't conceptualize a world beyond Muskogee. We'd been to Muskogee to the State Fair and to even talk about going to someplace like California was, we were unable to think about it in anyway. It would be like us sitting here saying, ‘I think I'll go to Mars,' and it was a world we couldn't visualize and couldn't imagine. We just knew that it was away from here and we'd have to leave home so we were not happy at all about that and in fact I asked my parents if I could stay here in Oklahoma with relatives. It was a very difficult time. I remember vividly the day we left on the relocation program, we're all piled in the car and headed to Stillwell and I sort of looked very carefully at everything to try to memorize it, the school, the road and everything else. And I always knew I would come back, even at 10, I knew that I would come back. We left a very isolated and somewhat insular world here, a very Cherokee world and got on a train and several days later we ended up in San Francisco with all the noise and confusion and everything else going on and we actually...the Bureau of Indian Affairs arranged for us to go to a hotel. I'll never forget, it was called the Keys Hotel in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco which is the Red Light District of San Francisco and we saw and heard things that were inconceivable to us. I remember my brother Richard and I hearing a siren and we could only relate that to what we knew so we thought it was an animal and we were trying to identify what kind of animal was making that sound. In fact I hated school ‘til I got to college. I couldn't stand school and found every opportunity that I could to avoid school because we were so different. We were country kids and we dressed like country rural people. We had the name of Mankiller. Children can be very cruel and so we were treated differently. We were immediately labeled as different and so...in school...so school became an unpleasant place. And as I got a little older we started going to the San Francisco Indian Center and that was the place where we met other people like ourselves who were from someplace else and just trying to figure out a way to...how to carve a life out in the city. And so that was extremely helpful."

Mankiller learns social issues from family: seeds of activism

Wilma Mankiller:

"There were always Indian people at our house and there was always discussion of what was going on in the world, what was going on in the communities and so eventually there were a lot of people who had ideas about relocation, which was really a very misguided policy and just about things in general. In terms of a political background or figuring out how to be engaged in the community I probably figured out how to do that just by listening to people at home. At the time I did not appreciate that. All I saw as a child and as a teenager is that dad would bring home people and my sister and I would have to give up our bedroom so these strangers could stay there but it sort of soaks in. Or dad didn't have money for us but he always had a $20 bill that he folded up and kept way in the back of his wallet that he would give to a family down on their luck. And so we would rather he had taken us to the beach or given us the money for the show and then later you realize that all that has an impact on you."

The family lives at Hunter's Point, an African-American community

Wilma Mankiller:

"And I still value that time because it gave me a close view of how an African community works from inside the community. There's a lot of strength and a lot of leadership, untapped leadership in African-American communities that nobody ever taps into and when people sit around and wring their hands about what to do about inner city problems, I think, ‘Why don't they just go sit down with the people and ask them?' In fact the first volunteer work I ever did was with the Black Panther party, which was again not like at that early stage not like the media portrays it but there were people who wanted to provide breakfast for elderly people and do a lot of...provide programs, a lot of really good things. And then in 1969 when Alcatraz was occupied, it was kind of a watershed experience for me and my whole family and four of my brothers and sisters moved over almost immediately to the island and helped out and so it was just an unbelievable period of time."

Mankiller discovers new strength from the Women's Movement

Wilma Mankiller:

"It was a marvelous time because before that I think we had like many women of my generation we had lived our lives through the men we were with and through our children and through other people, our lives were in response to somebody else, they weren't who we were and so we were always in a secondary role. We were...at the time I was doing work in the Native American community and I was the person who wrote the speeches for the men and arranged their press conferences, wrote the proposals and always tried to convince them that we should do one thing or another but never articulated my own ideas and so it was a time of awakening for us and kind of coming into our own."

Mankiller cultivates leadership skills directing a youth center in Oakland, attending San Francisco State University and working with the American Indian Resources Center

Wilma Mankiller:

"I gained skills on how to run a youth center period. I had no idea when they offered the job to me what it entailed. You had to develop curriculum, hire teachers, find the building. I thought, ‘Oh, this'll be a neat job.' Well! Anyway, so I ended up having to locate the building, find painters, fix it up, develop a curriculum and I loved the job. It was an inner city street after school program really and it was called the Native American Drop In Center. And all the kids would come after school to be there and work on their homework or have recreation and we did all kinds of things to help them feel good about themselves. At the time there was a Mescalero Apache singer named Paul Ortega who was making the rounds and so we had his music playing all the time and Jim Pepper, a Caw musician and other people like that to show them some role models, Native American role models. We taught the girls how to make shawls and taught the boys how to dance and drum, lots of things like that. It was fun."

Mankiller works with the Pit River Tribe in Northern California

Wilma Mankiller:

"Well, I think I was inspired at Alcatraz, by what had happened at Alcatraz to be more involved in things around me and I actually saw the Pit River Tribe on the evening news and they reminded me so much of people here. They were rural, Native American people who seemed familiar and so I called up their lawyer who had done an interview on the evening news and I volunteered to do some work for them, whatever they wanted me to do. And so mostly I worked as a volunteer at the legal offices in San Francisco but I spent a lot of time with Pit River people on their land and learned a lot. They were the first group of people I worked with who framed Native American sovereignty issues in an international context and saw the issues as international issues and not just national issues. So that was very helpful for me. I learned a lot about treaties, the treaty rights and the relationship between the federal government and tribal governments during that period at Pit River and in part because I worked for them as a volunteer at the legal offices and I've also helped them put together their history books and various things like that. But I learned a lot just sitting on the porch of some of the elders there at Pit River and I still have a very vivid image of these older people, Charlie Buckskin and Raymond Lague going and finding this little precious box of old papers, which supported their claims to their land near Mt. Shasta. And they treated those papers almost like they were sacred objects because it was their claim to their homeland. So that was a wonderful experience for me and my association with them was for about...until I left, until probably the mid ‘70s I was associated with them."

Mankiller balances life as a single mother, as a student and activist

Wilma Mankiller:

"I don't think that I balanced it very well for most of the time I was doing all that. I think that I had a singular focus on getting things done and so I just did the best that I could under the circumstances. My children went with me wherever I went. My children went to meetings, my children went to Pit River; whatever I did my children did those things with me. I co-founded a Freedom School in Oakland while I was there along with other Native American people and my children, I took my children out of public school for well over a year and they went to school in the Freedom School. Whatever I was involved in they were involved in."

In the mid 1970s Mankiller decides to return to Oklahoma

Wilma Mankiller:

"I think that part of the decision had to do with wanting my children to experience being part of a Cherokee community, part of it was that I wanted to do more local work and wanted to work with my own people. I had helped gather documentation for the 1977 conference in Geneva on Indigenous Rights and so I was dealing with very lofty principles of international law as they relate to Indigenous people and that's all well and good and certainly that work needs to be done but it was hard to reconcile that work with coming home and finding kids sniffing paint and people needing housing and needing healthcare."

Mankiller begins work with the Cherokee Nation in 1977

Wilma Mankiller:

"Basically I recruited Native American students from around the state for environmental training at a small college near Oklahoma City. When I took the job I had no idea where Midwest City was or where all these other tribes in Oklahoma were situated or anything. I hadn't been home that long but I thought, ‘I can figure it out.' And by the time I got processed and onboard it was early November of '77 and I had to recruit students for the spring semester beginning in January but I did it. I got the students there and did what I was supposed to do. Well, I sort of kept moving up. I started writing on my own, grants for the tribe and for projects and I've always liked writing and liked development and so then I moved into a development position and then eventually moved from the field office to the main office and moved into planning and then ultimately ended up doing community development work."

Chief Ross Swimmer moves Mankiller to tribal headquarters

Wilma Mankiller:

"Well, I had pitched to him before he started doing community development the idea of doing more work in communities like mine which is a rural Cherokee community. And the people who seemed to me to be getting the most services from Cherokee Nation were people who knew how to work the system and who had the ability to get to the Cherokee Nation. By and large they were many more mixed blood people than full blood people who knew how to get around and get things done and were much more pushy. And people in communities like mine were not getting served. And so I had written a paper, co-written a paper with a colleague at work and pitched the idea of doing work more in historic Cherokee communities. And so that...when he started thinking about doing community work I came to mind because of the paper I think."

Cherokees in small communities

Wilma Mankiller:

"I think they felt and I think they continue to feel a sense of alienation from the tribal government because the current system of tribal government that we have and which I was elected to bears little resemblance to our original way of doing things and the original way of doing things was that tribal communities had a great autonomy and their own leadership and there was no single leader or set of leaders who had unilateral authority over all the people. And so the only time all the Cherokee villages came together was probably in times of great catastrophe or an external threat and there was great respect for the local community leadership. And so Cherokee, the Cherokee Nation, like many tribes that have a form of government that's no longer their traditional form of government, have relatively low voter participation because people see the government as a place to go and get services but not the government in the sense of it being an integral part of their family or their community."

Mankiller's life is transformed by a series of events beginning in 1979

Wilma Mankiller:

"When I came home, I didn't come home and necessarily enter the world of the Cherokee Nation and politics. I came home to the traditional Cherokee world and I guess I'd missed it and I guess I didn't feel whole without that so I spent a lot of time going to stomp dances, I spent a lot of time with my uncle who's now passed away who led a ceremonial dance, a stomp dance, and my world was very different and my view of the world was very different. And so I saw the world from a different perspective and in that world disagreements were settled sometimes by medicine. There was good medicine where people could heal each other and provide comfort in times of stress or trauma or heal an illness and that sort of thing using traditional medicine. And there were also people who could use negative medicine to harm people. And during that period of time I learned from traditional Cherokee people that there were certain signs, if you were quiet and looked for signs that there were signs that you could see of an impending disaster or like a warning or something. And one of the things that they told me was that owls were messengers of bad news and so I became kind of leery of owls. The night before something really bad happened to me, two of the people who were part of what was my world then, a guy named Bird Wolf and his wife Peggy who are both full blood Cherokee people who are very involved in the ceremonial grounds came by to visit. And we spent the evening talking about, in part about the extent of which Cherokee medicine still had a huge role in the life of Cherokee people. And it was really interesting because that night that they were here we had...the house became surrounded by owls and in a way that it's just even hard to believe today that this happened because it was not the kind of behavior I've ever seen before and rarely heard of. But the owls actually came up to the window and they were everywhere, all over, and it was really very frightening. But I didn't connect that with anything going on in my life, it was just kind of a frightening situation."

In a head on collision with a car driven by a friend, Mankiller survives but her friend does not

Wilma Mankiller:

"And I remember briefly seeing the car, of course not seeing her but seeing the car, and then I didn't wake up for several days. But what was interesting and life changing is that I came so very close to death during that head on collision that I could actually feel it. I know what it feels like and it's actually very enticing and at the time I didn't know anything about near death experiences or hadn't read anything about them and so I didn't see a light or a lot of things the other people see during that period of time but I felt bathed in the most wonderful unconditional love and I felt drawn toward death. It was like this is what I lived for, everything I'd ever lived for and it was the most emotionally all-encompassing feeling that I've ever had. And I remember during that period of time when I was moving toward that feeling and was going to settle there that an image of my children, Felicia and Gina, who were young and I...that image sort of called me back and pulled me back from going there and staying there. So I think that had a profound impact on me, just the fact that I no longer, when I came out of that experience, I no longer feared death and so I therefore no longer feared life. So in a way I think because of some thinks that happened to me after that, I think that that accident prepared me for what was to come because I came out of that whole experience a different person."

Mankiller and Charlie Soap organize the Bell Community Project

Wilma Mankiller:

"Bell Community is not unlike other Cherokee, historic Cherokee communities. It was probably 85 to 87 percent of the people were bilingual. It was considered to be a rough community, a very troubled community. The school was in danger of closing cause so many young families were leaving. They had no water, no central water line. About I would say 25 percent of the people in the community had no indoor plumbing. There was a need for new houses. There was a lot of dilapidated housing in the community; very few services or programs. Many people weren't even enrolled in the Cherokee Nation tribal government and so anyway they wanted housing. In order to get housing they needed water and in that community it made more sense to do a water line. And so the Chief wanted to try to do a self help project there and so Charlie and I facilitated that process. And so the Chief and Charlie and I basically were probably the only three people who believed that people would actually rebuild their own community. So anyway we got the community together, we worked for them. They organized a steering committee with local leadership, elected from every single corner of the community and planned their own program with us as the facilitators. We just kind of kept a timeline and brought resources when we needed to, an engineer to design the system, funds to pay for the material, developed a system for organizing the labor so that it was done in a consistent way. And at the end of probably a little less than a year we finished...they finished an 18 mile water line using volunteer, totally using volunteer labor. Women worked and men worked and every family was represented."

Chief Swimmer asked Mankiller to testify for him before Congress

Wilma Mankiller:

"He had more confidence in me than I had in myself. Oh, my god, I had no idea where I was going, what I was doing and everywhere I went...I went to testify before a committee for the Chairman Yates was presiding over and after I finished my stumbling testimony he said, ‘Where's Ross Swimmer?' But, my goodness, my first trip was a disaster. It got better after that but he certainly had a lot more confidence and I'm sure he got lots of phone calls saying, ‘Who is this woman?' And then he asked me to represent him at various meetings and that sort of thing when he was ill as well."

Chief Swimmer asked Mankiller to run as his Deputy Chief

Wilma Mankiller:

"Initially I said no because I couldn't imagine myself making the transition from a community organizer and kind of a social services person who was a little bit bookworm-ish to a politician and our tribe's a very large tribe and elections are real mainstream kind of elections with...during that time they used some television, a lot of radio, a lot of direct mail. I just launched my own campaign, completely separate campaign without knowing anything about it but I used my own money and bought ads and did a lot of things to get myself elected."

Mankiller deals with resistance and hostility during her campaign

Wilma Mankiller:

"I tend to be a positive person and try to be very forward thinking and focus on the future. And there's a Mohawk saying that's probably my favorite saying that says, ‘It's very hard to see the future with tears in your eyes.' And so you can't spend a whole lot of time dwelling on negative things or crying about negative things or it blurs the future. So you have to kind of stay focused and keep moving forward. I think the accident prepared me for all that because it literally never touched me. I never saw their attacks as anything personal having to do with me. I saw them having to do with something going on with themselves or just a disagreement they had with me on an issue. I never took it personally and I think I was very fortunate throughout my entire political career that I was able to do that. I'm able to stay real focused on what I need to do, whether it's build a clinic or win an election. It's not about me, it's about a much larger issue and if I would have let my energy be drained off into thinking about me or my reaction to hostility, I'd have never got anything done and so I just didn't focus on it. I think that in any given political situation, people who put themselves out there to be elected know that there's immediately going to be a contingent of people who are very hostile, some overtly hateful who are going to be that way for reasons of their own that have little to do with me. And then I think people have a legitimate right to disagree with their leaders and so they have a right to have their own view of things."

As Deputy Chief, Mankiller heads the tribal council

Wilma Mankiller:

"Well, at first, because the entire tribal council had opposed my election they weren't real crazy about my being their president and so it took awhile to establish a relationship with them. And once they saw that I was going to be serious and focused and wasn't going to be drawn into games or negativity in anyway, that I was about the business of the tribe, I think they settled down and we settled into kind of a routine. And of course they thought the world would crash and burn when Ross Swimmer resigned two years after I was elected Deputy Chief to go head the Bureau of Indian Affairs and then I became principle Chief. Then they were just absolutely alarmed. So there were a number of threads running then. I think they one thought that things were going to be terrible for the last two years of Ross's term which I filled and on the other hand they thought, ‘Well, we'll just live through these two years and we'll defeat her in the next election,' which was the 1987 election. So it was a very difficult time because our constitution allows for the Deputy Chief to move into the Principle Chief's office if he resigns or vacates the office. If the council had had to make the decision I would have never been selected. They would have selected somebody else. So I was left with his staff, his mandate, a council that didn't support me and I had to figure out a way to get some work done in that situation."

Mankiller runs for Chief with the enthusiastic support of her husband and family

Wilma Mankiller:

"Charlie was very enthusiastic and very, very supportive of my election and I would not have won election without his support because he's very fluent in Cherokee and was able to talk to a lot of people who, older people and other people who would not I don't think had voted for me -- men -- a lot of people would not have voted for me had he not been able to sit down and talk with them in Cherokee and explain to them why I should be elected. So he was critical to my election. My whole family was supportive. My mom got out and put up signs and my sisters served as poll watchers so everybody was extremely supportive of me during that whole period of time.

Her priorities as Chief

Wilma Mankiller:

"When I came to the Cherokee Nation in 1977 as an employee there was almost no healthcare system. Our options were two Indian hospitals one Claremore Indian Hospital, the other one was Hastings Indian Hospital and being able to take the plans put together by tribal health staff and tribal members and make those plans real is probably the thing I'm most proud of. We basically were told by the people that we needed to decentralize healthcare and move it closer to the people. So during my tenure we built a $13 million clinic in one community, $11 million clinic in another community, we bought a hospital in still another community and renovated a building in another community and when I left we'd started another $10 million project in another community and so we built a lot of healthcare facilities that are closer to people. And the one in Stillwell in this town, our hometown, is named after me. The council...I was out of town and the council passed a resolution naming the clinic in this town the Wilma P. Mankiller Health Center, which is interesting given the fact, given how I started out with the council."

Relationships with other tribes

Wilma Mankiller:

"It would seem natural to me because I had been involved in the San Francisco Indian Center with many tribes and had done a lot of work among other tribes. Having relationships with other tribes seemed not only natural and normal but desirable. I wanted to know what they were doing and oftentimes some of the smaller tribes with far less resources than the Cherokee Nation were doing far more innovative than what we were doing at the Cherokee Nation. So I learned things from them, we shared information, we tried to support one another and help one another. And so I think that for some tribes I think they get a little tired of always hearing about the big tribes like the Cherokee Nation or the Navajo Nation and so there's a little bit of that but I think by and large there was a great relationship. The two times when tribes had to select people to represent them with President Reagan and with President Clinton and both times I was selected by the tribes themselves as one of the people to go and meet with the President. So was Pete Zah, my partner in a lot of this work."

Cherokee lands and environment

Wilma Mankiller:

"I personally had taken a hard and fast rule, pro-environmental rule so we weren't approached by a lot of people who would do damage to the environment so that was never a real huge issue for us. I think someone came once, you could always tell these guys that are coming from organizations that'll devastate the environment, they generally have a Rolex watch and a great spiel about how they can protect the environment and do all this stuff and so we would send them away."

During his lifetime, the great Chief John Ross revered the judicial system of the United States. Mankiller comments on the system today

Wilma Mankiller:

"I think I was less shocked than the rest of America by the Supreme Court's involvement in the 2000 election because I've seen how politicized the judicial system can be. We're very fortunate in the 10th Circuit in Denver for our region to have I think a pretty fair set of judges but that's certainly not the norm. I think that I've come to understand how very political the justice system is and you can simply look at the number of Native American women and men that are in prison and the number of Black men and Black women that are in prison and look at, compare that to White people who have committed similar crimes and understand a little bit about the judicial system in this country. And so I didn't have...I don't think I had the blind faith that other people had and I've never had the optimism that John Ross had that the judicial system was indeed just. So I wasn't shocked by what the Supreme Court did at all, not at all. I think it's significantly diminished the stature of the Court in the eyes of most Americans."

What progressive people can learn from opposing forces

Wilma Mankiller:

"Well, I'll tell you, the right wing has certainly figured out how to organize families and communities around the issues that are important to them and I think that people on the left in the ‘60s let the right just walk away with issues around spirituality and religion and a lot of other family values and they practically turned religion and spirituality in a bad word because they have such a narrow interpretation of...the right has such a narrow interpretation of religion and spirituality. I think we have a lot to learn about how they listened to the people then organized around issues that are important to everyday people. I think there's that lesson. For me, because I live in a state that's very conservative and there are a lot of right wing people, I'd rather deal with up front, right wing people than I would these squishy liberal people who are just as racist, just as greedy and are just as unsupportive of Native American rights who will read these wonderful stories about Chief Seattle and quote him in their meetings but who wouldn't lift a finger to help tribes and tribal sovereignty issues or tribal rights or who would not stand with Indian people in times of trouble. Give me an out and out racist any day than someone who will have the liberal chatter at a cocktail party and have more of a smoke and mirrors way of doing the same thing."

Interdependence and our responsibilities to the earth

Wilma Mankiller:

"What I mean by interdependence is I think that the Creator gave Indigenous people ceremonies to help us understand our responsibilities to each other and the responsibilities to the land and I think that the original instructions we were given as Indigenous people are what keeps us together as a people and that everything's connected to everything else. And so to me a life is not worth living unless you're engaged in the community around you, unless you have some sense of interdependence with other people and with the land and so when I speak of interdependence that's what I speak about. I think that the message we hear on television and magazines and films about doing for yourself and only thinking about yourself and that sort of thing, I think we should reject those messages and remember that we have a responsibility to each other as human beings and we have a responsibility to the land."

Major challenges for tribes today

Wilma Mankiller:

"We have just a daunting set of health, education, housing and economic development problems but the central issue I think for people is going to be...the central question is going to be, ‘How do we hold on to a sense of who we are as Indigenous people?' We can't do that if we lose traditional medicines, traditional knowledge systems, any sense of connection to our history and to our stories and to the land. And we've lost everything if we've lost that."

The prophecy of Charlie and the two wolves

Wilma Mankiller:

"Since almost the time of contact the Cherokees have debated the question of how to interact with the world around us and still hold on to a strong sense of who we are as Cherokee people. And the question became more confusing and more difficult as Cherokee people began to intermarry with Whites. And so at some point in history Charlie the Prophet appeared, a Cherokee man appeared before a meeting with two wolves and he warned the Cherokee people that they would die if they didn't go back to the old ways, the old Cherokee ways of planting their own food and living according to the old values. And I keep that statue and I have also a poster in the hallway of this same prophet to kind of remind me that it's an ongoing and continual debate among Cherokee people. How do we hold onto a sense of who we are as Cherokee people and still interact with the society around us? And I think that Charlie the Prophet when he was talking about the Cherokee people would die if they didn't go back to the old ways, he wasn't talking about physical death, he was talking about a spiritual and a cultural death and so I think his message is an important one that if we're to survive as tribal people and enter the 21st Century and beyond that the single most important thing we can do is to find a way to hold onto our culture, hold onto our life ways, hold onto our ceremonies and songs and language and sense of who we are."

The Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times series and accompanying curricula are for the educational programs of tribes, schools and colleges. For usage authorization, to place an order or for further information, call or write Institute for Tribal Government – PA, Portland State University, P.O. Box 751, Portland, Oregon, 97207-0751. Telephone: 503-725-9000. Email: tribalgov@pdx.edu.

[Native music]

The Institute for Tribal Government is directed by a Policy Board of 23 tribal leaders,
Hon. Kathryn Harrison (Grand Ronde) leads the Great Tribal Leaders project and is assisted by former Congresswoman Elizabeth Furse, Director and Kay Reid, Oral Historian

Videotaping and Video Assistance
Chuck Hudson, Jeremy Fivecrows and John Platt of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

Green Fire Productions

Photo Credit:
Wilma P. Mankiller
Clinton Presidential Materials Project

Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times is also supported by the non-profit Tribal Leadership Forum, and by grants from:
Spirit Mountain Community Fund
Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs
Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, Chickasaw Nation
Coeur d'Alene Tribe
Delaware Nation of Oklahoma
Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe
Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians
Jayne Fawcett, Ambassador
Mohegan Tribal Council
And other tribal governments

Support has also been received from:
Portland State University
Qwest Foundation
Pendleton Woolen Mills
The U.S. Dept. of Education
The Administration for Native Americans
Bonneville Power Administration
And the U.S. Dept. of Defense

This program is not to be reproduced without the express written permission of the Institute for Tribal Government

© 2004 The Institute for Tribal Government 


From the Rebuilding Native Nations Course Series: "Defining Sovereignty"

Native Nations Institute

Native leaders offer their definitions of what sovereignty is and what it means for Native nations in the 21st century.

Native Nations

Barrett, John "Rocky". Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 28, 2009. Interview.

Fullmer, Jamie. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. June 17, 2008. Interview.

Harjo, Suzan. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 11, 2008. Interview.

Jourdain, Floyd "Buck." Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Red Lake, Minnesota. July 2008. Interview.

Mankiller, Wilma. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 29, 2008. Interview.

Ninham-Hoeft, Patricia. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 26, 2009. Interview.

Pierre, Sophie. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Phoenix, Arizona. October 21, 2008. Interview.

Pierre, Sophie. "What I Wish I Knew Before I Took Office." Emerging Leaders Seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 25, 2008. Presentation.

Sophie Pierre:

"We have a choice! We have a choice. We can continue to go down that self-pitying kind of road, blaming everybody else for our problems, or we can take control of it. We chose to take control of it."

Wilma Mankiller:

"The definition of sovereignty is to have control over your own lands, and resources, and assets, and to have control over your own vision for the future, and to be able to absolutely determine your own destiny."

Jamie Fullmer:

"Sovereignty is an unwritten rule. It's there. You express it by what you do to grow and, within that though, what you claim is based on the structures that you develop. So, in the modern sense, as the nation moves forward, the process and the ideal of sovereignty is: we are here; we express ourselves; we accept the challenge and responsibility of governing and seeing our own path forward."

Suzan Harjo:

"Sovereignty is the act of sovereignty. We, as Native nations, are inherently sovereign and whatever we do to act sovereign is the definition of sovereignty. When something is inherent, it's inherent. You are who you are from the inside out and it's not something that is over-layered, either in law or in policy, and it's not something that the Europeans brought from Europe. It is your language -- speaking your language is an act of sovereignty."

John "Rocky" Barrett:

"A government without law, and the willingness to enforce that law, isn't really a government. That's the ultimate act of sovereignty -- not only enforcing a law, but being willing, as a people, to put themselves under the rule of law, is the ultimate act of sovereignty."

Floyd Jourdain:

"With tribal sovereignty, a lot of the time you see in the media, you see in the public, the term sovereignty come when tribes are on a defensive. We shouldn't have to protect our tribal sovereignty. We should be out there using our tribal sovereignty in a good way to advance our interests, to bring more resources to our communities, and not wait around until every two and four years (when the state and the federal elections come along) and all of a sudden we have to defend ourselves against interest groups, against sporting organizations, and those types of things. No, we need to use our tribal sovereignty in a good way -- proactively -- to use it to advance the interest of our tribal nations."

Patricia Ninham-Hoeft:

"I think too often people think sovereignty is when you can pound on your chest and proclaim that the things that you are doing are because you can do it, because you're a sovereign. But in today's world we have so many different relationships and so many different communities that we interact with that we don't live in isolation anymore. We have to work together, we're interdependent with places -- not just in our own backyard but around the globe -- so sovereignty, if you exercise it effectively, starts with understanding that it's a tool to building a community. It's not the end result. Because I hear that so often from tribal leaders: 'The goal for our tribe is to make sure that our sovereignty is strong.' And I think, 'that's not the end result. The end result is, how do you use your sovereignty to build a strong community?'"

Jamie Fullmer:

"Sovereignty, I believe, is best expressed when we ask not what we can do, but why can't we do it? The question we can ask is: why can't we do it? We're not asking: can we do that? We're asking: why can't we do that? You know, have others prove us wrong and not have to prove ourselves wrong first."

Sophie Pierre:

"I think what it really means was explained by a chief who has since left us. His name was Joe Mathias. He was chief of Suquamish. And he always said that exercising sovereignty was that, "˜the people who were going to live with the results of a decision, are the people who make the decision.' And to me, that's what sovereignty has always meant. We are responsible for our own lives, we make our own decisions, and we're the people that suffer the consequences of those decisions."

Wilma Mankiller: Governance, Leadership and the Cherokee Nation

Native Nations Institute

As part of its ongoing interview series "Leading Native Nations," the Native Nations Institute (NNI) interviewed Wilma Mankiller, the late and former Chief of the Cherokee Nation, in September 2008. In the interview, she discussed her compelling personal story as well as the challenges the Cherokee Nation have overcome, the lessons that can be learned from this experience, and her thoughts on nation building, governance, and leadership.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Mankiller, Wilma. "Governance, Leadership, and the Cherokee Nation." Leading Native Nations interview series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 29, 2008. Interview.

Ian Record:  "Welcome to Leading Native Nations, a program of the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management and Policy at the University of Arizona. I am your host, Ian Record. Today I am honored to welcome to the program the world-renowned Indigenous leader, Wilma Mankiller. As many of you know, Wilma was the first ever female chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, serving as her nation’s highest leader from 1985 to 1995. She also is author of the national best-seller Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. Perhaps the most notable of her many accolades came in 1998 when then-President Bill Clinton awarded Wilma the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Currently, she serves on numerous organization boards and works with several non-profits to promote community development efforts throughout Indigenous country. Welcome Wilma and thank you for joining us today."

Wilma Mankiller: "You’re welcome. Thank you, I’m happy to be here."

Question: "I’d like to start with a question I ask all of the guests on this program and that is how do you define sovereignty? What does it really mean for Native Nations?"

Mankiller: "I think that the sovereign rights of tribes are inherent. And I think that when thinking about that sovereign it’s important to remind everyday Americans that tribal governments existed before there was a United States government and that many tribes, including the Cherokee Nation, had treaties with other governments before they had a treaty with the first U.S. colony. So the definition of sovereignty is to have control over your own lands and resources and assets, and to have control over your own vision for the future, and to be able to have absolute, to absolutely determine your own destiny."

Q: "As a follow up, in that realm of sovereignty, how to you define a healthy Native community, what does it look like to you?"

Mankiller:  "For me, a healthy community would mean that people would have access to good health care, to education, to all the amenities that are available to a lot of Americans that are not now available to all Native people. But first and foremost I think that in a whole, healthy Native community is a community that still has a sense of interdependence, a community where people trust their own thinking, where people believe in themselves, when people are able to define for themselves what they want for their community, and then have within the community the skills and the ability to make that a reality."

Q: "The Cherokee Nation is the second-largest Native Nation in the United States as you well know, with at last count more than 240,000 citizens, probably more than that now. What challenges does the sheer size of that nation, of your nation, pose to its nation-building efforts, and how does the nation meet those challenges?"

Mankiller:  "I think that probably the biggest challenge is just the increasing cultural, social and economic stratification of the population. And so that in a population that size, for example, just culturally, we have in our communities people that are full Cherokee, that speak Cherokee, that have remained close to their culture. On the other end of the spectrum, we have some Cherokee-enrolled tribal members that have never even been to the Cherokee Nation and don’t have the same connection to the land and to the community, but are enrolled members and certainly have a right to membership, but are different in the way they think. Economically, we have tribal members that are struggling. I live in a very low-income community, in a county with a very low per capita income. So we have some tribal members that have a very low income and on the other end of the spectrum, we have some tribal members who are extremely wealthy. The fellow who owns the Tennessee Titans is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, for example, and there are many other examples of people like that. So I think the challenges is, one of the challenges with a population that size and that stratified – socially, economically, and culturally – is to try to make sure that you find some common ground for all the people who live very different lives, often."

Q:  "You once referred to the Cherokee Nation as a revitalized tribe, stating that, 'After every major upheaval, we have been able to gather together as a people and rebuild a community and a government. Individually and collectively, Cherokee people possess an extraordinary ability to face down adversity and continue moving forward.' Can you dwell on that statement, particularly with respect to the Cherokee Nation’s present and recent past?"

Mankiller:  "I can, and I believe very firmly that the Cherokee Nation is symbolic of other nations as well because I’ve seen the same sort of just heroic ability and to hold onto a sense of who we are as a people and rebuild our families and communities and governments again. What I meant by that is if you look back at Cherokee history, even before removal, and all the things that happened to the Cherokee people and the continuous shrinking of the land base and then the tragedy of the forced removal by the United States military from the southeast to Indian Territory. If you look at how our people reacted to that it’s pretty amazing. When Cherokee people arrived, the last contingent of Cherokee people arrived in 1838 in Indian Territory, what is now Oklahoma, there had been a bitter political division within the tribe over whether Cherokee people should fight to the death to remain in the southeast or participate in that removal. So there was a bitter political division within the tribe. About one-fourth of our entire tribe was dead, that either died on the removal or died while being held in stockades. People had left behind everything they’d ever known in the southeast – places where there were cultural practices, places where their people were buried, places where they had a strong connection with – and watched their homes being raffled off to non-Native settlers. So they arrive with all of that after the removal and yet it’s really remarkable to see what they did. What they did almost immediately is they began rebuilding their families, rebuilding their communities, and rebuilding a government in Indian Territory despite everything that had happened. And it’s amazing. They built some of the first government buildings anywhere in Indian Territory, which are now the oldest buildings in what is now Oklahoma. They built a Supreme Court building. They printed newspapers in Cherokee and English. They started a school system, one of the first school systems west of the Mississippi, Indian or non-Indian, and they built a school for the education of women which is pretty remarkable for that period of time in that part of the world. And so that spirit that allowed them to go through that kind of tragedy and pain and division and yet, keep their vision fixed firmly on the future I think is what I meant when I said that we’re a revitalized tribe. And then after the Civil War, the Cherokee Nation was attacked by the United States Government, and various laws – the Curtis Act, the Dawes Act, our land was allotted – and we again faced another major upheaval. And so, between the early 1900s and the early ‘70s, we were not electing our own tribal leaders. And what’s remarkable is that in my grandfather’s time – and my grandfather’s name was John Yone (sp?), 'Yone' means 'bear' (Mankiller) – in my grandfather’s time, nobody ever, no Cherokees ever gave up the dream of having their own tribal government again. In my grandfather’s era, they would ride horses to each other’s houses and the Cherokee people, they would collect money in a mason jar to send representatives to Washington to tell them that we had treaty rights and we had rights to our own self-governance. So that’s what I mean, I think, when I talk about the spirit of survival and the tenacity of Cherokee people and their just abiding commitment to maintaining a sense of community and a sense of tribal government."

Q: "Let’s turn now to your personal story. Reflecting on your experience, first of all living in an impoverished neighborhood in San Francisco in the 1960s, you once said and I quote, 'That poor people have more tenacity for solving their own problems than most people give them credit for.' Can you elaborate on that statement, particularly with respect to Native peoples efforts to rebuild their nations?"

Mankiller:  "Sure, let me preface my remarks by saying that my family participated in the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program, which was really a poorly disguised attempt to remove Native people from their homelands and that’s how we ended up in San Francisco for twenty years. And the better life the Bureau of Indian Affairs promised us was actually a very rough housing project. What I learned living in a housing project in San Francisco which was predominantly African American is that people took care of each other in that community which was very isolated, and is still isolated, the housing project is called Hunter’s Point, the people helped one another and that’s how they got by in life. And what I saw in my own community before we left home, I was ten when we left Oklahoma and went to San Francisco, and what I’ve seen since I’ve returned home is a strong sense of interdependence in our community, and then in other communities that I’ve become aware of as well. People from Mexico, Central and South America, people that live in many of those communities have that same sense of responsibility for one another and interdependence. In our communities, there are always people who have formal leadership positions and titles and then there are the go-to people that folks gravitate toward when there is a crisis. And there are many people in our communities and in all low income communities that have great capacity for leadership, and I believe that community revitalization efforts can never be successful unless they begin at the grassroots level with families who know their community better than anything, outsiders who want to help a community with whatever project – whether its getting a water system or housing or health care or whatever, may have ideas about how to do that, but its never going to be successful if its conceptualized in a vacuum outside the community. For projects to be successful, they have to come from the people and because, you know you can be an expert in anything, there are a lot of smart people at this University, but people who live in low income communities are experts in their community. So the idea is to get a partnership between people who may have external resources and people in the community and then with that partnership they can move forward."

Q:  "Really what you’re talking about is solutions from within, solutions from the ground up, solutions from not just -- as you said, people in elected positions -- but local community leadership. How important is that? When you look across Indian Country and you work in Indian Country and you see some Indian communities very much dependent on the federal government to change things or they expect their tribal governments to do it all. And you’re essentially saying that the spirit of interdependence, the spirit of local solutions in the community, is really what change needs to happen."

Mankiller: "I think that all of that is part of a process of trusting your own thinking. I think if you trust your own thinking and you truly believe that within the cultural context of your tribal community that you can rebuild your nation then you can. Part of what’s happened over centuries of oppression is that our people came to rely on the federal government or the Bureau of Indian Affairs or well-meaning social workers to try to tell us how we should be and to provide things for us. And what’s happened I think in the last few decades is that people are saying, 'No! We can articulate our own needs and we actually have the skills to be able to make, to solve those problems, and make our dreams a reality.' So at the very outset of trying to do something – and I think you have to have a sense of self-efficacy – all these people are always going around to tribal communities with these hot shot business ideas and these other kinds of things, well you know what, you’re not going to get there until you do the basic work first. And the basic work first I think is working with people and making sure that people trust their own thinking first and have a strong sense of self-efficacy and believe in themselves. And once they believe in themselves and have that strong sense then they can do anything; they can move forward with that. It’s pretty easy to do that. People often ask my husband and I how we got people in rural communities to volunteer to build their own houses and water systems and that sort of thing. All we did was trust people; it’s that simple. I mean, not trust idly; it was an absolute trust. Can’t read and write, it doesn’t matter. If you have other skills; maybe the guy who can’t read and write in the community is the best repairman of heavy equipment and can keep the waterline going. There’s a role for everybody. Maybe someone in the community is a good writer, who can help write grants. There’s a role for everybody. So trust in your own thinking I think is key to that."

Q: "Really what you’re getting at is that rebuilding Native Nations, moving those nations forward, forging a common vision is really dependent on broad ownership in that process, it cant just be a top-down solution."

Mankiller: "Absolutely. Before I returned home, I did some work to prepare people for the 1977 treaty conference in Geneva, we were sending lots of Native people to Geneva. And it was interesting, but for me working on sovereignty in an international legal concept is one piece of work that’s important. But, for me, if you’re going to talk about sovereignty, you have to bring the people with you; you can’t be just tribal leaders talking to each other, and academics talking to each other about sovereignty. It has to be with families too, it has to begin with families. And so what we’re describing here is a part of that process."

Q: "Getting back to your personal story, I’m going to move now to 1969. It’s well known that you took part in the Indians of All Tribes takeover of Alcatraz Island. And you credited that experience with giving you more self-respect and a sense of pride. How did that change your life, that experience?"

Mankiller: "Well, it profoundly changed my life. I was a young house wife married to an Ecuadorian kind of living a middle class life in San Francisco. And when I took the boat over to Alcatraz – my brothers and sisters had gone over to join the occupation – and when I took the boat over to Alcatraz it was like an act of revolution almost to do that, to say, 'You know, I’m an adult.' And when I got there and I met leaders like Richard Oakes and John Trudell and many other people there and they articulated things that I had felt, but didn’t know how to express. And they talked about the fundamental rights of tribal governments and the conditions in tribal communities around the country, in a way that was very strong. It was the first time I had ever seen Native people stand up and stare down the United States government. Of course that had a profound impact on me. And because I had all these feelings running around, but didn’t know quite how to express them, so they expressed for me a lot of the things that I felt. And of course at the San Francisco Indian Center I had heard people talking about the relocation program and a lot of other issues, but not in the way these young people spoke about them. Richard Oakes who was Mohawk, and the first leader, was very articulate and very clear about the fundamental rights of tribal government."

Q: "Delving more deeply into this issue of community ownership and rebuilding communities, in the 1970s you returned to Oklahoma and the Cherokee Nation. Can you tell us about your early work with the Cherokee community of Bell and specifically the lessons that community can teach other Native Nations about the importance of tribal citizens taking ownership in rebuilding their communities?"

Mankiller:  "Okay, the Bell community in the early ‘70s and late ‘70s was a predominantly Cherokee community, a bilingual community. About 95 percent of the population was Cherokee, there were a few non-Native families there. About 25 percent had no indoor plumbing. Very dilapidated housing. There was a local school there that was getting ready to close because young families were all moving out. And it’s one of dozens of small Cherokee communities within the Cherokee Nation that are more traditional communities. And they had been trying to get housing and they couldn’t get housing without a decent water system. So we decided that we could do a self-help project there. The idea was conceptualized not by me, it was conceptualized by Ross Swimmer. And I was a staff person at that time, the idea of a self-help project. So because I had this idea about community people being able to lead and had been very vocal about that and about the tribe putting more resources into ideas like that, I was tapped to lead the project. So what we basically said to the community is, 'If you want this to happen, this is your community, this is your houses, this is your kids. And if you want this to happen, you’re going to have to work on it.' And so we will, myself and my husband – my husband was my partner on this project, Charlie Soap – what we said to the people in the Bell community is that, 'We’ll provide the technical assistance and the resources if you will physically build a waterline, I mean put the pipe in the ground, cover it up, build it. And we will get the materials for some new homes and solar panels and we’ll rehab some homes in this community, get the resources to do that if you’ll do the work.' And this was a radical idea at that time, so they were saying: 'Why do we have to do that? The people down the road, the Indian Health Service builds their waterline and the Housing Authority builds their houses. Why should we do that?' And so we went through a process for about a year of meetings and talking and working with people to see that, so that they saw, not just us, but that they saw that it was in their best interest to do that. And that by rebuilding, physically rebuilding their community they would also rebuild a sense of control over their lives. The sense that we had when we went to the first meeting in Bell where almost nobody showed up by the way, the sense we had was that people thought: 'Aw things have always been like this, they’re always going to be like that. A lot of people have promised to help us. It’s not going to happen.' So we had to go from that point to a point where people believed that they actually could learn how to build their own waterline, they could rebuild their community, that things could be better, that the future could be better. So over a period of meetings, it was a long process of meetings, and that tapped into the values of the community. We got people to the point where they believed they could build the water system. Outsiders often focus on what the problems the community had when we started there, but we saw assets too. When we went into the community, the people who fished would share their fish with people in the community, people who hunted would share what they got with people who needed it, and during winter, if older people needed wood for their stoves, people would still get it for them. And so what we did was pretty simple. We just tapped into what we saw already existing there. Outside people said to us at that time, 'Well a lot of people in that community are on welfare. They won’t even work for a living. How do you expect them to volunteer to do these things?' Well, there’s no place to work. If there was a place to work, I’m sure they would, but there’s no place to work there. And so, we felt confident that people would rise to the occasion and build their own water systems and rehab and build their own houses because of what we saw in the community there, despite the problem. And so for me, the first day when we started building the water line, we had organized for a year and divided the water line project into sections so that each family had responsibility for a certain section. Driving down into the Bell community the first day, it was a pretty big deal because for me, it affirmed everything I believed about poor people. I always believed that poor people would rise to the occasion if you partnered with them. And so when I turned the corner and I saw all the people standing there getting ready to start the waterline, it affirmed for me my fundamental belief that we can rebuild our communities and we can rebuild our nations. To me Bell, a little tiny community within the Cherokee Nation, is symbolic of our nations, our people themselves stood on a porch and decided that they could rebuild their community themselves and they did it. And I believe that our leaders can get together and decide that they can rebuild their nations and they can do it."

Q: "In 1985, you became the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation after your predecessor Ross Swimmer stepped down to become the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. You subsequently won two elections for principal chief, the second with 82 percent of the vote before leaving office in 1985. Among other accomplishments during your tenure, you oversaw the Cherokee Nation’s historic Self-Determination Agreement with the federal government whereby the Cherokee Nation took over control of Nation programs and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. How important was that step in advancing the Cherokee Nation’s efforts to rebuild their Nation and achieve self-sufficiency?"

Mankiller: "Let me start by talking about my election. I was actually elected in 1983 to Deputy Chief position; Ross Swimmer didn’t appoint me. I don’t think he would have appointed me, given that his entire tribal council opposed me. And so I ran for Deputy Chief in 1983 and was elected to that position so when he left in 1985, I automatically assumed his position. But, with regard to self-determination, it was critical. I began my first work in tribal government as a volunteer for the Pit River Tribe in northern California which didn’t take any federal funding. So I was a strong believer that tribe’s should be able to allocate their own resources and make their own decisions about the needs of their people. So during the self-determination era, we took advantage of that every step of the way. And I was in the planning department when we first started contracting tribal programs. So there was a sea change from the time I began working for the tribal government in 1977 to the time that we signed our first self-governance agreement. And I had had a kidney transplant and I was in a hospital in Boston when our first self-governance agreement needed to be signed, and I insisted that they Fedex it to me; I got out of my bed and set out and signed that self-governance agreement because I considered it so critical and so important for our people."

Q: "Following up on that, how did accountability change when you took over your own programs? Often in Indian Country, you see when the outsiders are calling the shots, when they screw up their not around to pay the consequences, it’s the local people. How did the feeling of accountability change when the Cherokee Nation took over?"

Mankiller: "For us, I don’t think it changed that much. We always felt very accountable and we always just dealt with whatever we had to deal with. We were very accustomed to having federal audits and that sort of thing. And so I don’t think that it fundamentally changed the way we did business. We understood that we couldn’t make the Bureau of Indian Affairs a scapegoat anymore. So I’m not sure that it changed that much; I found that most tribal governments are very accountable and set up their own systems for making sure that the funds get appropriated and allocated for the things that they were destined to be appropriated for. And so I’m not sure that made a fundamental change."

Q: "Okay. In 1976, the Cherokee Nation’s Constitution was ratified and just two decades later however, the Nation initiated a major overhaul of that constitution which culminated in the ratification of significant reforms just a few years ago. What compelled the Cherokee Nation to undertake constitutional reform and what were the major outcomes?"

Mankiller: "I think there was a period of time after I left office, and I didn’t run for office again, there was a four-year period when there was a great deal of debate and controversy within the Cherokee Nation. And I think the idea of reforming the constitution came out of that whole controversial era. I’m not sure that our model is the best model for anyone to follow; there’s some lessons people can learn from what we did. My feeling is that the constitution reform efforts, recent constitutional reform efforts, did not come from the people, they came from outside the communities. And my sense – I live in a Cherokee community and my husband works in Cherokee communities – and so we’re in that part of the Cherokee Nation, I’m not sure all the constitutional amendments were properly vetted or necessarily understood and completely supported by people. If you look at the hearings that they conducted around the Cherokee Nation, there wasn’t wide attendance at those hearings. So I guess if there’s a lesson for other tribal governments, if you’re going to do constitutional change, and make sure that the people that will be directly affected by the constitutional changes fully and completely…Take your time. Take your time. Changing a constitution is a major thing. Don’t rush into it. And look at each amendment separately and make sure that people completely and thoroughly understand it before putting it out there."

Q:  "And part of the constitutional reform process that the Cherokee Nation employed involved the Cherokee Constitutional Convention. And that’s essentially a permanent body that periodically reviews the Constitution. How important is that, I mean you talked about 'take your time,' and is that part of that focus on taking your time?"

Mankiller: "It is, but I think again it depends on whose involved in the Constitutional Convention. If you’re going to have a constitutional convention of opinion leaders and political leaders and that sort of thing, that’s one thing. But, if you want a broad citizen participation, then you need a different kind of convention. So, in a tribe as large as ours, a single constitutional convention is not going to get it. There would have to be constitutional conventions in lots of different places with lots of different populations. So again, the lesson I think from our experiences is to have broad participation and take it very slowly and have a great deal of discussion before putting it up for a vote."

Q:  "Because essentially what you need to do by taking it slowly is get that community behind it, which doesn’t happen overnight. [Mankiller: 'Absolutely, absolutely.'] Since you became principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985, Indigenous Country has witnessed a surge in the number of females assuming elected leadership positions in their nations. What, from your perspective, do you feel is driving that trend?"

Mankiller: "I think that there are more pipeline opportunities for women. As tribal governments grow and expand and contract their own hospitals and run their own school systems and run their own businesses, that there are more opportunities for women to administer programs. And they’re in highly visible places. They get to work within tribal government and know tribal government and become known in the community. And so, there are more opportunities for women to lead within the tribe and then some go from an administrative position to running for council and then running for top leadership positions. And I think that education is a factor; I think that more Native women are getting an education, and more Native women are taking advantage of administrative and leadership opportunities within tribal government."

Q: "We’ve already talked about this issue, but I want to ask you a question directly on point. You once said that, 'I want to be remembered as the person who helped us restore faith in ourselves.' Why is this restoration of faith and self so important to securing a vibrant self-determining future for the Cherokee Nation?"

Mankiller: "Well, when I hear that quote I cringe because it sounds very self-important, so I actually hate that quote. But I do believe that an essential part of leadership is, besides all the things like making sure you’re working on legislative issues and legal issues and health and education and jobs and all that sort of thing, is to try to help people understand their own history and understand where we are within the context of that history and to believe in ourselves; to look at our past and see what we’ve done as a people and to remind people that if they want to see our future they just simply need to look at our past to believe in ourselves, to believe in our intellectual ability, to believe in our skills, to believe in our ability to think up solutions to our own problems. I think that is critical to our survival."

Q:  "Following up on that, what you’re really talking about is leaders not just as decision-makers, leaders engaging their citizens, teaching their citizens about what’s possible as you talked about, but also learning from citizens and really engaging them in this rebuilding process."

Mankiller: "Well, I think good leaders make decisions based on information they’ve received from their people. And leadership should be about listening to people, especially listening to people who differ from you and have very different ideas than you do, and then taking the ideas of the people and synthesizing them and then figuring out how to move forward. Leaders who make unilateral decisions and charge ahead I don’t think are good leadership. Good leadership is consultative and good leadership simply means listening to people. And what I tried to do very diligently when I was in office is to set up regular community meetings and I learned a lot more about what was going on in our tribal government in those community meetings then I did by listening to the staff. And so I think that for me the idea of listening is key to good leadership."

Q:  "Moving on, the Cherokee Nation has received multiple awards from the Honoring Nations Program of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development including one for its Cherokee Nation history course, which is mandatory for all new Nation employees, and one for its Cherokee language revitalization project, which seeks to revitalize the Cherokee language by focusing on Cherokee youth. Why did the Cherokee Nation develop these two programs and what role do they play in the Nation’s rebuilding efforts?"

Mankiller: "Well, I think that the history course is just critical. And again I think that for all of us we live busy lives and everyone goes to school and receives a good education, but not that many people have the opportunity to learn about the legal and the political and the cultural history of their own people. And so, the history course provides a historical and cultural context for the current work of staff and members of the Cherokee Nation. It’s a very popular course. I think it’s important to understand our context and where we’ve been in order to figure out how to move forward. And then with the language revitalization program that was started because less than ten thousand people of our tribal membership is still fluent in the Cherokee language. And I think that our current chief felt that there needed to be some radical intervention at all levels and so they’re teaching Cherokee language in the preschool programs, in the public schools, there’s a Cherokee language course at the local university, and encouraging community leaders to speak Cherokee as well. So I think they’re both critical to our survival. If we get you know down the road five hundred years from now, and nobody remembers our history and nobody speaks our language, it’s not going to be very healthy for our people. So this is a tip to make sure that five hundred years from now we’ll still have a viable language and still have a sense of who we are as a people."

Q: "Pretend for a moment that I am a newly elected tribal leader who has been chosen to serve his nation for the first time. Drawing on your extensive experience as a tribal leader, what advice can you share to help empower me to rebuild my nation?"

Mankiller: "I think the best advice I would give is to develop teams of interdisciplinary teams of people to help you in problem-solving; don’t try to do it by yourself. And to rely on people, not just on staff, but people in the community to help you solve big problems. I think that that’s very very important. The other thing is that I think it’s important for leaders to remain focused. The mistake I see not just in tribal leaders, but in leaders in general whether they’re leading a country or leading a parent committee, is that they try to do too many things. And so it’s very important to say, 'What is it I want to accomplish during my term? What are the two or three major things that I want to accomplish during my term?' And then stay focused on them. We have such a daunting set of problems to face each day in tribal government that sometimes you can get sidetracked and the little things take up as much time as the big things and so it’s important to remain focused; that’s another thing I think is very very important. The other thing is I think there needs to be kind of a seamlessness between – this is just a personal thing – between your personal life and your professional life. Indian Country is a very small place and within a tribe it’s even smaller, so that you can't mistreat women, for example, and then be in a leadership position of leading women. So I think that people expect their leaders to conduct themselves in a certain way and it’s important to do that. I had the privilege of working with Peterson Zah, President of the Navajo Nation, and he is just a great example of a family man, a grandfather, someone who always conducted himself with just great dignity and great respect and I think that that’s important too to remember when you’re in leadership its not about you, you represent people and always keep the faces of those people in your head when you go someplace, you’re representing them and when you speak, you’re speaking for them. I think that’s important as well."

Q: "You talked about the importance of leaders focusing on the big picture and not getting sidetracked with the little things. How important are rules and specifically, rules that clearly define the boundaries of your position, how important is that to empowering leaders to be able to focus on the big picture? Because oftentimes, among some Native Nations where the rules aren’t clearly defined, the council feels particular, the council or chief executives feel like they have to do everything because there’s no rules or boundaries set to keep them focused on the big picture."

Mankiller:  "Right, I think that the single most important aspect of that is for there to be a clear role for the executive officer, whether it’s a principal chief or chairman of a business committee, and a clear role for the tribal council. One thing that helped me was that those roles weren’t fuzzy. We had three branches of government, the tribal council had a very clear legislative role and they also had a role for fiscal oversight and budgetary issues, and then my role was to manage, and the courts had their role. And so I think that having a clearly defined role is critical, very critical. And if people don’t have that now, I would encourage them to work very hard to make that happen. I can’t imagine having to make decisions by committee you know, consult people, work with them, but not having fifteen or twenty different people trying to make a decision."

Q:  "These days you’re dedicating a lot of your time and energy to raising awareness about the importance of Native Nations, providing the mainstream media and the general public a clear balanced picture of contemporary Native America. In particular, the amazing stories of success, innovation and renaissance that are taking place across Indigenous Country. Why is this educational effort so critical to Native Nations ability to achieve their nation-building goals?"

Mankiller: "It’s critical because even after hundreds of years of living in our former towns and villages, most Americans don’t know anything about us and there’s not accurate information about Native people in the popular culture, there’s not accurate information about Native people in literature, there’s not accurate information in secondary schools and universities. And because there’s so little accurate information about Native people, a lot of nonsensical stereotypes get developed. And because of those stereotypes, every time a tribal leader goes to the United States Congress and particularly for new members of Congress, they have to educate them about the history of Native people in this country. And so there’s still a number of people who want us to be like we were three hundred years ago or something. And so I think that it’s critical; I actually see shaping public perception as a sovereignty protection issue because I believe very strongly that public perception shapes public policy and that unless we take control of our own image and help frame our own issues and change the image of our people, that it will ultimately affect public policy."

Conclusion: "Well Wilma, I’d like to thank you very much for joining us today. I’ve learned a great deal and I’m sure our audience has as well. That’s all for today’s program of Leading Native Nations, produced by the Native Nations Institute and Arizona Public Media at the University of Arizona. To learn more about this program and Wilma Mankiller and her inspirational story, please visit the Native Nations Institute’s website at www.nni.arizona.edu. Thank you for joining us. Copyright 2008 Arizona Board of Regents."

Wilma Mankiller: Challenges Facing 21st Century Indigenous People

Simon Ortiz and Labriola Center Lecture on Indigenous Land, Culture and Community

Recorded on October 2, 2008 at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and internationally known Native rights activist talks about “Challenges Facing 21st Century Indigenous People.” Mankiller talks of the diversity and uniqueness of the over 300 million Indigenous Peoples of the world. She also talks of indigenous duty and sense of responsibility to conserve and protect the natural world and how cultures with no memories of their origins have little understanding of their place in the world...

Native Nations
Resource Type

Mankiller, Wilma. "Challenges Facing 21st Century Indigenous People." Simon Ortiz and Labriola Center Lecture on Indigenous Land, Culture and Community. Arizona State University. Phoenix, Arizona. October 2, 2008. Lecture. (https://vimeo.com/2332389, accessed August 21, 2012)