CHIEF WILMA MANKILLER
Once served as the Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Chief Mankiller has been active in national and international issues of the Native American movement. However, her emphasis has been on local Native community development.
TRIBAL SOVEREIGNTY, (55:30 min.s) recorded in a public forum Mar. 21, 1989 at Boulder, Colorado. In this speech, Chief Mankiller reviews the history of the Cherokee experience, the evolution of Cherokee tribal government and her personal experience of being a woman Chief in tribal government.
"We survive, our languages are intact, we have a cultural system that's intact, we have a social system that has been impacted, I'II grant that, but we still have, many of our old cultural factors are still play a part in our everyday life. We still have a lot of our art forms.
And this wasn't intended to happen. By now, we were supposed to have gone away."
"TRIBAL SOVEREIGNTY" Speech
Thank you very much, thank you.
I'm going to be fairly informal and what I thought I would do, if I can finish up in a sort of summary form, is take some questions, because particularly in the last month as I've traveled around people have been sort of confused by the, all the National press about the Senate Sub-Committee that's investigating Indian Affairs. And there have been a lot of questions about that and so if people have questions, I'd like to have an opportunity to discuss that with you, so I'm going to save a little time.
What I'd like to do, is discuss with you from a practical standpoint, what's going on in my tribe in the revitalization of Tribal Government.
And also, because there's so many women here, talk at the end of my discussion of Tribal Revitalization, a little bit about my election, and then after that, I'd be happy to answer some questions.
What is interesting, I think, to me is that I testified before the Senate Sub-Committee that's looking in to the current state of Indian Affairs Nationally, in Good Faith. Believing that this Sub-Committee was looking at some serious issues in Indian Country and that there was a potential for positive change.
At the end of my testimony, which was really very moderate, Senator Inowe asked me an interesting question. He asked me to define Tribal Sovereignty, and I looked at him and I told him, "Honestly", I asked him if I could submit a paper, rather than try to define Sovereignty in that kind of situation.
I told him, "Honestly", which is honestly the way I feel, that trying to de..., asking someone like me to define Sovereignty is sort of like asking someone to define the meaning of life. So, I asked to submit a paper, and we're submitting a very legalistic kind of paper.
But, I think that for the purposes of my discussion tonight, I'll define Sovereignty as Self-government, very simply. Not in all the legal and International terms, more in simple terms of Self-government, and the right to have social, cultural, religious and political and economic independence. For the purposes of this discussion, that's the way we'll define it.
In addition to the question the Senator Inowe asked, which seemed to be a sincere question, everywhere I go in this country and I talk with people, everyday Americans, people ask me why tribes continue to exist today.
Why is it that in the Nuclear Age, in 1989, within the most powerful country in the world, we have Tribal Governments, we have independent little governments within the United States, and I think it's very important to touch on the evolution of that relationship.
Tribes today enjoy a government to government relationship with the Federal government. The foundation of that relationship, I believe, began when this country was forming and this country began to negotiate agreements with the existing Tribal Governments in this country. The agreements then were, the United States government, the new government dealt with tribes on a government to government relationship.
I also believe the rights of Native people to self government are inherent. The governments of most Native people in this country predate the United States Constitution and the United States government. So, I think there's a solid foundation for Tribal government and for the evolution of this government to government relationship.
Apparently the Supreme Court agrees with me, because on down the years there've been many, many cases that have gone to the Supreme Court that have reaffirmed the right of Tribes to Self-government.
One of the big problems with Tribes and asserting rights of Self-government, well there have been many problems, not the least of which has been the ever changing Federal policies. But one of the real problems that we deal with today, in places like Oklahoma, and I'm sure, throughout the United States, is that while the courts recognize the government to government relationship and the legal foundation for that relationship, in many cases the state governments do not.
And we have serious problems in Oklahoma, in communications and understanding between the state of Oklahoma and Indian Tribes, in regards to issues of Jurisdiction, who has jurisdiction over certain pieces of land. Issues of Taxation, which is a very volatile issue. And we're constantly in court with the state of Oklahoma.
While the questions are well settled questions of Indian Law, in my mind, we still have serious problems in the states, in trying to work out relationships with the states. I think we're beginning to make some headway by putting together groups of Native people and state legislators to work on that problem. Many of the legal cases that you see, that talk about self-government and tribal sovereignty, use as a basis for their foundation, the legal foundation, a very famous Cherokee case.
The Cherokee Nation and the Cherokee people have always been at the forefront of the fight for self-government, and what I'd like to do is tell you a little bit about what's happened with our tribe in our relationship with the Federal Government, just particularly in the last 150 years and what has happened to us. I don't think our story is really that different then the story of many other tribes.
Just to give you a little background. We're in the eastern part of Oklahoma presently. We are, our jurisdictional area includes 14 counties in eastern Oklahoma. We have about 95,000 registered tribal members. We have an elected Chief, Deputy Chief and Tribal Council. The Tribal Council is sort of like a legislature. And I'll tell you a little more about the Cherokee Nation later, that's just to kind of put it in context for you.
After, I'm going to skip a whole lot of history, and assume that you at least know some of this,
and take you to about the early 1800s.
In the early 1800s there was much discussion in this country of putting Indian people on reservations and removing Indians from various parts of the country to Indian Territory. Indian Territory is now the state of Oklahoma. And during that time, the Cherokees were in the southeastern part of the United States. We were in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama.
We were a very prosperous Tribe. We had fairly early European contact and we figured out that we were going to have to live with our newly, this newly emerging country and figure out a way to get along with our neighbors. In fact our people made a decision at some point to even join General Jackson in some of the wars, thinking that that would protect our people from removal. However, Gold was discovered on our land, and the land that the Cherokees had, the Cherokee Nation, was good land for growing tobacco. So, there continued to be much discussion of moving us out of the Smoky Mountain area in the southeast and sending us to Indian Territory.
Our Chief at that time believed in working through the system, and so he took our case to the United States Supreme Court. Took our case all the way through the court system for the right of the Cherokees to have self-government and to remain in the southeast part of the United States, and he won the case.
In a very famous speech President Jackson, General Jackson had now become President Jackson, told the United States Supreme Court, essentially, "you've made this ruling, now let's see if you can enforce it!", and he continued on the path to try to remove the Cherokees.
During this time when there was discussion of removing the Cherokees from the southeast to Indian Territory, our tribe became bitterly divided. About, part of our tribe wanted to stay in the southeast and fight to the death for the right to remain there. Part of our tribe wanted to go on to Indian Territory, saying in effect, these people are all around us, this country is growing, the removal is inevitable, let's go on to Indian Territory and re-establish a tribal government there.
Despite our best efforts, and despite the divisions in the tribe, or perhaps because of the divisions in the tribe, the Cherokees were rounded up and removed about 150 years ago in 1838, from our homeland to Indian Territory. That removal is known as the Trail of Tears, because of the large loss of lives. Many Cherokees, at least four thousand Cherokees, fully one fourth of our tribe, died during that removal, either in stockades, where they were being held prior to removal, or during the removal itself. Which was conducted, in our case, it was conducted on foot and much of it occurred during winter.
So, we arrived in Indian Territory with a, bitterly divided politically, many people dead, our social system was in disarray, we had, our political system had been also, absolutely disrupted. And yet our people, when they arrived in Indian Territory began to get together and talk again about revitalizing the tribal government. Reasserting tribal sovereignty.
They had been promised the right, our ancestors had been promised the right to live in Indian Territory forever, and to practice our tribal government and our culture forever, in exchange for the lost land and the lost lives left behind in the southeast.
So, we began to revitalize our tribal government almost immediately, despite our problems. And in 1840, in Indian Territory we began, almost a Golden Era of the Cherokee Nation.
We began to re-establish tribal government, re-establish newspapers, printed newspapers in both Cherokee and in English. We established beautiful institutions of government that still stand today. There's a Supreme Court building and many other Courthouses in eastern Oklahoma and other institutions of government which are, of course now that it's Oklahoma, are the oldest buildings in Oklahoma.
We established a political system again. We began to put together an economic system. We established an education system. In fact, the educational system that was set, we established, that the Cherokees established was the first educational system west of the Mississippi, Indian or non-Indian.
While some people in this country were still debating the issue, whether Indians were human, or whether they had souls, the Cherokees established institutions of education, not only for men, but also institutions of education for women. Which was a very radical idea at that particular period of time in that particular location. The curriculum included Latin, Geometry, Zoology, Botany and Analysis.
And so, we began to revive our tribal government. We were. And because of the Syluvary, and Sequoia's work, we were a very literate tribe.
Then the Civil War happened, which divided this country, the United States and much of the Civil
War was fought in Arkansas and over into Indian Territory. After the United States began to come together again after the Civil War, there was discussion of opening Indian Territory up for statehood or up for white settlement, and that was done.
It's kind of interesting if you look at history, history has a strange way of repeating it's self. So, in 1906 our tribal government was again abolished. Our court system was stopped. Our schools were closed. And I think, most importantly to us as a people, if you look at the social system of our tribe, our land, which we had held in common since the beginning of time, no matter where we were at, all of our land, our tribal land which we had held in common, was divided up in individual allotments and parceled out to individual families, in allotments of 160 acres per family.
This had a devastating impact on the social system of our tribe. We began, once and for all to be introduced to the idea of individual ownership of land.
Well from 1906 when Oklahoma became a state and, for all intents and purposes, the formal structure of the tribal government was abolished, our chiefs were appointed by the president of the United States and it was kind of interesting to see what happened to our tribe during that period of time.
We went from a period of time of being a very strong, powerful, literate people to falling into an incredible situation of decline. From 1906 to, I guess, the late 50's, we went from being very literate to having one of the worst, some of the worst educational problems in the country. We had some of the worst poverty in the country. Our housing problems were worse. Our health problems were very, very poor.
And I think that if you look at government, and if you look at self-government and make the comparison between how our tribe prospered when we had self-government, and how we fell into decline when we no longer had the self-government; that you can see that there's a very practical reason for tribes to continue to have tribal governments.
In the 5O's and the 60's, there began a national movement among Native peoples to revitalize tribal governments, and to look at tribal sovereignty. And there began to be discussion within the Cherokee Nation of that movement.
During the 60's, all over the United States, people were talking about tribal rights and tribal government, and asserting tribal rights and tribal government. This whole country was in a discussion of really challenging authority and trying to come to a new awareness of things. And so, in the 60's, the Cherokees began to meet and start to rebuild the foundation for a central tribal government. And in 1971, we had our first elected tribal chiefs.
It's kind of interesting if you look at leadership, kind of as an aside. From 1906 to 1971, the Chiefs of the Cherokee Nation were appointed by the president of the United States; and in order to receive a presidential appointment, one normally has to be very prominent or very wealthy. Very prominent, politically, to get the attention of a president.
Most of the chiefs who were appointed (obviously they were all male), most of the chiefs who were appointed from 1906 to 1971 were people who had a nominal amount of Cherokee blood and who were from very prominent families. There are some exceptions to that, but by-and-large that's true.
So what happened to our people is that during that time, is that our people began to see leadership as external to themselves, and to see leadership as something that one should aspire to only if you were a member of a prominent family, or had personal wealth, or something like that.
So it did a strange thing to the way we viewed leadership
And if you look at the pattern of the elections, in 1971 our first elected Chiefs fit that pattern. Our first elected Chief was W. W. Keeler. He was a very prominent Oklahoma republican, chairman of the board of Phillips Petroleum, a nominal amount of Cherokee blood. So you can see that people began to believe that these were the kinds of people who should be chief of the Cherokee Nation, so that there was a change in the way that people looked at leadership.
And in 1975, in 1979, in 1983, Mr. Swimmer was elected and, to some extent, he fit that pattern, not as much as Mr. Keeler, but to some extent also.
Anyway, how I got involved in this was, my family had been, I'm half Cherokee, my father's full blood Cherokee, I was brought up in a rural Cherokee community, and my family had been victimized by a very ill advised Bureau policy.
We were small farmers, I guess you would call us dirt farmers, and we did farming that just supplied our needs. In 1956 - 57 there was a very bad drought in eastern Oklahoma, and my father went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to ask for assistance in keeping our farm going. There were ten children and there was simply not enough to go around. And the Bureau of Indian Affairs said to him essentially, we don't have any assistance to help with the farm but we have a program that can take you and your family from here to the city and into a better life.
So, my father had never been anywhere, we lived in a very remote area, I had seen television once, we had no electricity, no indoor plumbing. So, we get on a train in Stillwell, Oklahoma and we move to, and we end up in San Francisco, in the Tenderloin District. And the better life that the bureau promised us, ended up being a housing project. Which people in San Francisco lovingly referred to as Harlem West.
Because of that policy, because of the bureaus policy, this is just one of many, many policies that the bureau has had to deal with the so called Indian Problem. But because of that policy, and because of our removal, from our ancestral homeland, our traditional homeland, we had many discussions in our family about tribal rights, and about our desire to be with our own people, which led to, I think political involvement.
In 1969 a group of students from the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco State, occupied Alcatraz Island, which is just off San Francisco, just off the city of San Francisco.
They occupied the island, really to illustrate the point that excess Federal Land, under certain treaties, is supposed to be returned to Native people. And they wanted to make the point that the land was now excess and it should be returned to Native people. My family joined in that occupation of Alcatraz Island, and it was at that time that we became very politicized and very active in the Indian rights movement.
In 1970, I began work, volunteer work for a tribe called the Pit River Tribe in California, which was fighting for the right to retain their ancestral homelands in California. And so that further peaked my interest in treaty rights and Indigenous rights. And during that time I became even more politically active, I think that during that period of time my politics were somewhat to the left of Karl Marx.
And it was a really interesting period of time believe me.
In the mid 70s I became very active with the International Indian Treaty Council and with other Treaty Rights organizations as a result of my work with the Pit River tribe. I like to write and I like to do research and so most of my work was in research and writing, and for me at least, that work was a little too abstract.
I could argue or debate issues of tribal sovereignty in the abstract sense and I'd read lots of legal work and that sort of thing, and could certainly see the validity of doing that work and even taking the work internationally. But it was hard for me to reconcile my work, which was mostly research and writing, with what was happening at home.
I could talk about lofty principles of Tribal Sovereignty and go home, and people were still living without indoor plumbing. Or I could continue to do my work and try to raise money to send people to Geneva and I would go home and people were still dropping out of school.
And so for me, I needed to do something more practical, that had, that I could reach out and touch. Where I could see the real change. So, in 1977 I began work for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. What is interesting is that, prior to my work with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma I swore I'd never, I'd never work for a tribal government. I also swore I'd never work for anyone who had Federal funding. And so you can see, my politics have changed.
And so, I began work for the Cherokee Nation, and I began to look around and see what was happening. My analysis of what was happening, in the area of tribal sovereignty with the Cherokee Nation in 1977 was that, somehow the institutional development was OK. You can approach tribal sovereignty, and work for and on behalf of tribal sovereignty from many perspectives.
I think you can approach it from a purely legal perspective, I think you can approach it from an institutional perspective. Build tribal courts and build buildings and clinics and those kinds of things. And I think you can approach it from a people perspective.
What was happening at the Cherokee Nation in the mid 70s is that the Cherokee Nation was in the institutional development phase. But it was sort of like the Cherokee was here and the people were here and some how they weren't connected. And so I began to think about my earlier work in tribal sovereignty and how to put all that together. So, I began to develop programs that I thought really impacted people. I developed a series of social programs.
Then in 1980, we began a series of projects that really, truly, I believe, began to revitalize the Cherokee Nation from the bottom up.
I think if you look at what's happening in many tribal, tribal communities, if you look at the problems in their totality, they're almost overwhelming. And so what we began to do, in the late 70s and the early 80s, is we began to look at a way to begin to rebuild piece by piece, little by little to revitalize our tribal government, to rebuild a strong sovereign Nation from the bottom up.
So, our thinking was, that in order to rebuild we need to begin at the beginning. And the beginning is the people. That it wouldn't do any good to have all these institutions in place and to do all these things if the people weren't going along with you.
I'd like to give you just a couple of examples of some work in revitalizing tribal government, that I think have some chance of being replicated in other places, and they're very simple, truly very simple.
We began work in 1980, in a little bitty, in little community in eastern Oklahoma called Bell. The community had, is really not that different from Pine Ridge, or Crow Agency or many other places that I've visited around the country. It's a small community. 85% of the people there are Cherokee. Most of the people are bilingual. The children enter Kindergarten speaking Cherokee.
At that time 25% of the people were living without Indoor plumbing. 50% of the people were without decent housing. I would say that most of the older people lived on less than $1500 a year. Most of the young people were leaving because there wasn't any place to live and there wasn't any place to work, so the school was getting ready to close. Disputes in that community were settled by violence. People were dropping out of school. Every social indicator of decline was present in Bell.
Yet, in looking at that community, I and other people, saw a great deal of potential in the community and many positive things in the community. Just as I believe there are many positive things in every Native community in this country. We saw a strong sense of interdependence. A willingness of people to help one another, to do things for the common good, rather than just for themselves. That really did exist in Bell and still does exist in Bell.
We saw a strong sense of tribalism and a lot of attention being paid to tribal culture. Thus the language was still very strong. We saw a desire, at least a spark of a desire to create change.
The overwhelming attitude however, at the first meeting I attended in Bell, was that things have always been this way and things are always going to be that way. Various tribal officials and government officials come and talk to us and go away, and things either continue the same or they get worse. So, to sort of summarize, we made a deal with the people in Bell. The deal with the people in Bell basically was that if they would be active and participate in the revitalization of their own community that I, and other people, would go out and raise the funds for them and get the technical assistance for them.
So, they, the idea was that they , what they wanted to do, their priorities were to build a water system and rehab houses. If, I or somebody else had come down there we would have said, what they really need is youth programs or something like that. But what they said is what we'd like to have is Indoor plumbing and we'd like to have our houses fixed up and then we can talk about youth programs and elderly programs and these other kinds of things. So, we struck a deal with them, and said, that if you'll physically do the labor and if you physically will do, help do the organizing I'll facilitate the process, and we made this deal with one another.
What was interesting, is when I went around to try to get funding for this project, which is a simple project, you put in water systems, you rehab houses, you build new houses, people thought I'd fallen out of a tree. They said that essentially, that these people in this community had never worked for a living, so they sure weren't going to work as volunteers.
Another thing I remember people telling me is, I shouldn't be going out there by myself at night and all kinds of things. Mostly very negative things. And yet we pressed on.
We had an interesting incident. We had a, there was a program on CBS called CBS Sunday Morning News, That likes to do shows about victims. And they, this fellow heard about us through this foundation that was helping us, and he arranged to come down and film this project, because he wanted to do a project about a poor community that was trying to revitalize itself, and would fail. And they wanted to film this process, and so they made a commitment to be with us through the duration of the project.
Through the first meeting, where people were talking about whether or not it could be done, through some of the training sessions, through the election of the steering committee and that sort of thing. So, the CBS Sunday Morning News people actually ended up coming there and filming a success.
It was one of the best things that's ever happened to me, was to spend fully twelve months on something that I believed in. I believe in our people and I believe in our peoples' ability to take charge of their own destiny.
To spend all that time organizing and working on a project and then you just kind of hold your breath on the first day and hope that people really do show up. And so when the volunteers, every single family in that community got out and worked and worked very hard to construct their own water system, rehab their own houses and build their own houses. And that community is forever changed, not just physically, but also in how they view themselves and their ability to create change.
And so anyway, the CBS Sunday Morning news piece, that they originally planned to use to illustrate the victims in this country is a film that we now use as a training film to help community organizers. So, we just stayed, stayed steady.
This I believe, this kind of project, and we've done this ten or twelve times in other communities, is slowly, slowly rebuilding the capacity of our people to take charge of their own lives. What it also did is that it taught our people to essentially trust their own thinking again.
For a long, long time, I think our people have been told to trust the thinking of the Federal Government, or various officials around, people external to themselves. And what this little bitty project did in this little tiny community, really, is it taught people to realize through their own experience, that their thinking was valid, and that they, better than anybody else, knew what was best for their community, could articulate it and could actually implement it.
So, after that project they rebuilt a community building, again with volunteer labor, they started a Rural Fire Department, so their Insurance rates were lower. They started a bilingual education project, a youth project, they're doing all kinds of things down there, and we've long since left.
All of this is stuff that they're doing entirely on their own. And this is also happening in many other communities. What that's doing is it's building the capacity of the people for leadership. Two people that were involved, in those kinds of projects have now been elected to the tribal council, and we hope to elect more people that have been involved in those kinds of projects also. And their facilitator has been elected the tribal Chief.
So, I think we're making some progress in looking at the revitalization of tribal government, at least from my perspective. That does not mean that we're not doing all the traditional things. We're doing institutional development, we're pressing claims through the judicial system, we're doing all the things that everybody else is doing, but we're also bringing the people along with us, which I think is very difficult but also very necessary.
In this last year, we've brought in a facilitator who brought together people from all ten of the communities to talk about, articulate, their vision for the tribe. We then took some of their goals and then we've incorporated them into the overall tribal goals. So I think that as we continue to do this work, we're going to continue to see more of the people at the grassroots level having an impact on the tribe.
People wonder, I think, about what I see in these communities or in other reservations and other Indian people that makes me so positive about our ability to turn things around. Because when we initially started turning things around, I guess I was one of the few positive people around. And I wanted to share with you some thoughts.
We all know the bad things that are going on in our communities, but I also think there are some very good things that are going in our communities and tribal communities throughout this country which can help to contribute to our move for the revitalization of tribal government.
One thing, above all, that I see in our people, no matter where they're at, is tenacity. The fact that we exist as a culturally distinct group within this country today, in 1989, speaks volumes about our tenacity. The most powerful country in the world first tried to wipe us off the face of the earth and, failing that, then instituted a series of policies designed to make sure that our culture did not survive. And yet, despite all that, we survived.
We survive, our languages are intact, we have a cultural system that's intact, we have a social system that has been impacted, I'II grant that, but we still have, many of our old cultural factors are still play a part in our everyday life. We still have a lot of our art forms.
I'm still able to see, as I travel around and then return to my own home, I'm still able to see that there's a distinct, very clear difference in the social system of the tribal people in rural Oklahoma and many other people, so that's still very much intact. And this wasn't intended to happen. By now, we were supposed to have gone away.
So I think that as I see many, many positive things, I also see that many tribal governments have become stronger and are very strengthened. I see many, many positive things around Indian country that lead me to believe that we have made some strides in tribal government and that we're going to continue to move forward.
My own goal for my own tribe, and I'm sure everybody has goals for their work, my own goal in looking around my tribe and my communities, was to try to re-establish a situation where we had whole healthy communities again. Where our people were able to believe in them selves, and not think that there's some mysterious they out there, that's going to solve their problems. and understand that we have the best ideas, that indigenous thinking is the best thinking. and that we have the solutions to our own problems. and I've tried to, I've spent most of my time trying to promote that work in eastern Oklahoma, and to some extent in other tribes.
So, I think there's a good, good future for our tribe and also for other tribal governments. I think we have very strong tribal governments, contrary to what you've been hearing, I'm sure, lately in the national press.
Now, just briefly I'd like to talk about my election, because I think there are some women here who'd be interested in that and then I'll answer some questions and then we can get into whatever discussion you want to get in to.
In 1977, when I began work with the Cherokee Nation there were no female executives there. and I certainly didn't begin work with the Cherokee Nation with the idea of becoming the first female Chief, or Deputy Chief, or anything else. There were women who were work1ng there but there were no women in executive positions.
I began work, coming from this very activist background and being there sort of reluctantly. but feeling it was necessary, I had two children, I was divorced, it was about the only place to work. So, trying to figure out some way that I could do some good in that position.
I had a knack for development, I liked to develop programs. To listen to people talk and then put together programs and go out and get funding for them. So, I began to develop programs for the Cherokee Nation in the 7Os', in the late 7Os' .As I began to develop programs, I generated revenue for the Cherokee Nation, and as I generated revenue for the Cherokee Nation, I caught the attention of the male hierarchy. I began to move up.
In 1981, I was encouraged to establish the Community Development Department to broaden my work. So, I put that together and I was its' first Director. I staffed it, put the funding together, and directed it.
In 1982 I was serving as the Director of the Community Development Department when our former Chief, Mr. Swimmer, Ross Swimmer, developed a very bad systemic cancer. When, it was interesting if you're interested in institutional psychology, it was interesting to watch what happened in 1982. Mr. Swimmer was in chemotherapy a lot. So, when he was in the office he was sick, or he was gone a lot.
During this period of time when he was taking chemotherapy, and he was quite ill, his, the person who had ran with him as deputy chief on a ticket in 1979 announced that in 1983, he was going to run against him for chief. Believing that, probably that Mr. Swimmer could never win an election in his physical state. Many of the male executives there, believed that the new person in power would be the Deputy Chief, so they all aligned themselves politically with the Deputy Chief. and the organization began to suffer.
Rather than rallying around the chief during this time of illness, everybody was grabbing for power, and jockeying for positions of power.
During that time Mr. Swimmer asked me if I would attend some meetings for him and do some things for him and I did, and he was satisfied with my work. In 1983 when he recovered, he began to think of running for election again, he reached over all the people who had paid their political dues and asked me if I would run for, with him for election as Deputy Chief. Which was quite the Cherokee scandal at that time, I'm a liberal Democrat, he's a conservative Republican, and it was an interesting discussion.
When I ran for election in 1983, running in a large tribe, running for election is sort of like running for congress, because you have to go allover the fourteen counties and sometimes out of the state to little pockets of voters in other places, and I at first had difficulty imagining myself going out and trying to sell myself like a tube of toothpaste.
but I eventually kind of got the picture, it was interesting because I had never really had to fight people openly. Sexist people openly. People, obviously, there's evidence of sexism in society all around, but I'd never had to deal with it as directly as when I entered the election, which was kind of interesting.
Because my job as Community development director was sort of work, that traditionally being held by men. I was supervising engineers, building houses, building water systems, buying backhoes and those kinds of things. No one questioned my ability because I was female, and yet when I wanted to become a leader, people all of sudden said, "no you can't do that." and somehow or another, people began to talk about leadership being not open, in our tribe, not being open to women.
It was a very hurtful election, and a very hurtful discussion. I did fairly well in debate in high school and in college, and yet I found myself unable to respond when people came up to me and said purely sexist kinds of things about female leadership.
I remember during that time I had a friend who was on the board of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and I called her up and asked her for some witty things to say to people. So that when they came up and said things to me I could say something funny back to them, instead of just standing there looking at them. and I won't repeat what she told me to tell them.
We did talk and I did figure out a way to deal with that, and the way I decided to deal with it was to ignore it. I did not consider gender to be an issue as it relates to leadership. I thought it wasn't an issue at all. I didn't see any point in debating a non- issue, and so I ignored it.
One time on the back of a little tea box I saw something that I remembered all through that election, it was a little saying that said, Don't ever argue with a fool, because somebody walking by and looking at you won't be able to tell which one is the fool. That's sort of how I thought of people who wanted to argue with me about whether or not women should be in leadership positions.
So, another thing that was kind of interesting that happened during that election is that, I had never been involved in politics before so I decided to have a political rally. I have a friend who has a house that has a lot of historical significance to the Cherokee nation. It's an old house. and we ordered stuff catered and put it on the radio and the newspapers and we were expecting about 500 people to come to the rally.
This was at the height of the debate of whether women should be in office in the Cherokee Nation. Preachers were getting up and saying it was an affront to God, and there were columns in the newspaper saying that the Cherokees would never elect a women.
Anyway, at the height of this debate we had this rally, in this nice house with all this food and three people showed up. I think two of them were related to me. Being a fairly perceptive person I knew there was no way it could go but up after that. So, I hung in there and continued on and I did win the election.
Then I served from 1983 to 1985 as Deputy Chief and President of the council. In our tribe, you serve as president of the tribal council when you're deputy chief. So, that's kind of interesting to. 1983, most of our tribal council were older men, and they were not just real thrilled about a 37 year old women becoming their president.
I remember this one guy, he was an ex-boxer, real macho guy, and he was always interrupting me and giving me a bad time. When I came in to my first meeting, and was to conduct my first tribal council meeting, he was always telling me I was violating some obscure rule that I didn't even know about. or that I hadn't followed some procedure that I'd never even heard of.
and so what I did is I got all the microphones fixed, so that, between the first meeting and the second meeting, so that I could turn his microphone off. So that, that's called asserting yourself. So, that after that we began to understand each other a little bit better. We got along, rocked on, we got used to each other, and then in 1985 Mr. Swimmer decided to resign and go to Washington.
When he resigned and I moved up, it was interesting, I felt that we would go back to the same debate allover again. and I prepared myself in every way I knew how. I went to a medicine man, I prepared myself all kinds of ways, readying for the big debate again.
It was interesting because nothing happened, and people had in that two year period, become accustomed to female leadership, and had decided that the ship was not going to sink, just because there was a women at the helm.
I remember one thing in that time, it's just a little incident really but it always is something that serves for me as kind of a turning point. I was very tense, right after Mr. Swimmer left and waiting for the other shoe to drop essentially. Some older Cherokee tribal members said they wanted to have a cake and coffee for me, and I went up to the cake and coffee that they were having for me and when I walked in the room they all stood up and started clapping. and I honest to God, thought there was somebody behind me. Once I understood that there was nobody behind me and those people were happy I was chief, I began to relax a little bit.
Then in 1987, when our tribal elections came up again, I served obviously without elections from 1985 to 1987, when 1987, when the, our elections in the summer of 87, when three very strong candidates, male candidates, announced that they were going to run for election, so my friends started coming by and saying to me, Wilma, I don't think you should run for election this year.
You've done a lot for women and it would be bad for women if you were to get out there and lose. We need to just leave that stuff for awhile. I had lots of other people who came by and told me that I could get elected as Deputy chief, but I could never get elected as Chief. During that period of time, I told my husband that if one more group, or person comes by and tells me not to run simply because I'm a women, I'm going to run for sure. So, I did run in 1987 against three very strong candidates.
The election was very volatile, but kind of fun in a way and I did win the election completely on my own. and I think now if you were to talk to everyday Cherokees, most Cherokees, that they would tell you that they really don't think that leadership is related to gender.
What most, most of our people are poor people, and I think what most of our people care about is that whether or not their lab tests are done properly at the clinic, or whether the Adult Ed. teacher shows up on time, or whether they get their higher education grant when they're supposed to. Whether they can come to a tribal council meeting and be heard, those are the kinds of things that I think are important to people. and not whether there is a male or a female at the top.
They care more about efficiency. So, I think that for our people anyway, the issue of female leadership has been resolved and I've been very encouraged by the fact that several other women across the country have been elected in their respective tribes also. So, I think that's an issue that's been settled.
But I think what's worse about stereotypes is when we hear them so often, that we begin to believe them ourselves.
Sometimes I can sit around and have coffee with some women who will tell you that they don't like female bosses because they think that men make better leaders, and that's from hearing that stereotype so often that they begin to believe it themselves.
Or I talk to an older man in our tribe who had gone to try to get social security or something, and he just left when they didn't treat him right. and I said why didn't you speak up? Why didn't you tell them that they had not treated you right. and he said I don't know, I guess it's just the Indian in me that's quiet.
and I told him, you know there's nothing in our history, and there's nothing in our culture, and there's nothing in our background that says we should be quiet and let people walk all over us. So, that's a stereotype that we began to hear so often, that we began to believe it ourselves.
So, I think that it's important for all of us to try to get rid of any stereotypes we might have about one another. So, and I hope that my being here tonight will help to eliminate any stereotypes that any of you people might have about what a chief looks like.
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Recording & Transcript Ó 1989 Richard Two Elk
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