Print Friendly and PDF

CHEROKEE CULTURE: MANKILLER A CHIEF AND HER PEOPLE (1993)

I am so excited to finally be able to share Wilma Mankiller’s gripping autobiography Mankiller A Chief and Her People with you!  I finished reading it a few weeks ago and finally have time to get my review online.  While researching this article, I also discovered that a documentary, Mankiller, was just screened for the first time this month (August 2017!).  Can’t wait for a chance to watch it when it becomes more widely available, and to learn more about this inspiring Cherokee woman. 

One thing that really surprised me about this autobiography is that a good half of the book is dedicated to telling the story of the Cherokee people, and not to the author’s own life (although she does weave the two narratives together).  I found this incredibly helpful, because I am still learning about the history of the Cherokee, and her detailed account of their culture from the 1500s onward is fabulous.  She places particular emphasis on the members of the Cherokee tribe who were forced to march 900 miles (mostly on foot) from their homelands in the southeastern United States to “Indian Territory,” or present-day Oklahoma, between 1838-39.  These death marches have gone down in history as the “Trail of Tears,” but have been largely ignored by modern history textbooks (I’d heard of it maybe once before I started researching Cherokee culture, despite majoring in history, which underscores the desperate need for more Native American studies in our schools and universities).  No records were even kept of how many Cherokee perished along the way: there are estimates of 4,000 or more, and archeologists are only recently beginning to dig at the sites of historic forts along the Trail of Tears, where the Cherokee would have been barricaded inside during stops along the march. 

Wilma Mankiller’s book focuses on the Cherokee removed to Oklahoma because her ancestors were among them, and she spent the early years of her life on a small, hardscrabble farm in Oklahoma.  She writes that the family name, Mankiller (Asgaya-dihi in Cherokee), “...is an old Cherokee name, although it was originally not a name at all, but a rank or title used only after one had earned the right to it.  To call someone Mankiller would have been like calling another person Major or Captain.”  She was born in November 1945 to a white mother and Cherokee father at the family farm, “Mankiller Flats,” near Tahlequah.  Mankiller had 10 siblings, and as she describes it, “we were really poor—‘dirt poor’ is how they say it in Oklahoma.  I suppose there are degrees of poverty just as there are degrees of wealth.  If so, we were on the bottom rung of the poverty ladder.”  She describes the food they ate, much of it from the land:

…native people raised large vegetable gardens and harvested plant foods from the woods, such as wild onions, greens, mushrooms, and berries.  Hunting and fishing helped fill our plates, and when folks could afford it, they raised cattle and hogs…In those early days, we ate a lot of squirrel.  Squirrels are small, so you have to have several to make a meal for a family.  My mother would bread the squirrels lightly and fry them like chicken…sometimes we had squirrel soup and dumplings, or soup made from quail or other birds.  We gathered greens such as dandelions and poke.  There were walnuts and hickory nuts, as well as blackberries, mulberries, and wild grapes…even though we were poor, I cannot remember ever being hungry as a little girl.  Somehow, we always had food on our table.

The Mankiller Family’s rural, live-off-the-land lifestyle came to an abrupt halt in 1956, when the family joined many other Native American families from across the country in a devastating government scheme designed to solve the so-called “Indian Problem.”  (Had I ever heard of this modern-day effort to stamp out Native culture in my history classes?  No, no I had not.)  The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) hatched a plan (put into law as the Indian Relocation Act of 1956) whereby they decided to do their level best to break up rural Native American communities across the country.  (Reasons for this included a desire to save the government money by halting spending on health care services and schools for Native American reservations.)  The BIA basically lied to Native people on reservations across the country about all the wonderful opportunities to be had in the "City" (San Francisco, where the Mankillers relocated, was among the many metro areas to which the BIA moved Native families).  They were promised jobs, money for the transition, vocational training, and a better future for their children. 

As was the case with many Native American families, however, the Mankillers did not benefit from their move: quite the opposite, in fact.  Wilma Mankiller describes her first impression of San Francisco: “The noises of the city, especially at night, were bewildering…We had never heard sirens before.  I thought it was some sort of wild creature screaming.  The sirens reminded me of wolves.” They faced poverty, crime, and racism, along with homesickness and a disconnect from their beloved cultural practices, such as ceremonial dances.  

Throughout the rest of the book, Wilma Mankiller tells a powerful story of how she overcame this transition and many other obstacles (including an ill-fated marriage to her controlling first husband, as well as serious lifelong health problems), to become the Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma (1985-1995).  To get elected, she had to overcome fierce opposition from other leaders of her tribe, many of whom did not want a woman as their chief.  She triumphed, however: Mankiller wrote in 1993, towards the end of her second term as Principle Chief:

We also are returning the balance to the role of women in our tribe.  Prior to my becoming chief, young Cherokee girls never thought they might be able to grow up and become chief themselves.  That has definitely changed. From the start of my administration, the impact on the younger women of the Cherokee Nation is noticeable.  I feel certain that more women will assume leadership roles in tribal communities.

 She worked tirelessly to promote the cause of the Cherokee Nation throughout her life, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 for her advocacy for her people. 

Mankiller A Chief and Her People is a somewhat heartbreaking read at times, and reflects the tenacity and grit of not only Wilma Mankiller, but of the Cherokee people as a whole.  Gloria Steinem perhaps summed it up best when she wrote of this book:

As one woman’s journey, Mankiller opens the heart. As the history of a people, it informs the mind. Together, it teaches us that, as long as people like Wilma Mankiller carry the flame within them, centuries of ignorance and genocide can’t extinguish the human spirit.
— Gloria Steinem