Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
June 3, 2000-Issue 11

Wilma Mankiller Talks Straight but Makes Mischief, too
by Mark Trahant Seattle Times Columnist

"Wilma Mankiller is someone I feel I've known in this lifetime and many lifetimes before.
I recognize in her the greatest beauty, dignity, and truthfullness. An honesty that embraces.
A candor that heals. A radical love for people and empathy with the earth.
Alice Walker

"A young man once asked Wilma Mankiller what he should call her. She was then principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and twice elected as the leader of some 200,000 people. But this young man was uncomfortable with what he called a "male" term.

"Should we address you as chieftainess?" he asked. Mankiller didn't say a word. Then, after hearing the suggestion "chiefette," she responded. "I told him to call me 'Ms.-Chief' or 'misChief.' "

Mankiller still makes mischief.

She's no longer leader of the nation's second-largest Indian tribe, but she travels across the country writing and speaking about American Indians, stereotypes and racism. Recently, she spoke in Seattle at the Urban
Enterprise Center's Forum on Race.

She focused on ideas

Mankiller started working at the Cherokee Nation in 1977 in the community development department. Then she ran for the office of deputy chief in 1983.

That election was rough because so many voters only wanted to talk about why a woman was running. It had never happened before.

But Mankiller wanted to talk about her ideas - and how to make them happen. She kept her focus and day by day stripped away false notions about gender and leadership. She found a way to engage people in a conversation about the future. She won the election - and two years later was elected principal chief.

The audience is different these days, but Mankiller's ideas are still her strength. She said our national conversation about race cannot be complete until we can peel away false stereotypes and rewrite history so that we can include tribal accounts and philosophies.

Left out of civic discourse

The United States has dealt with tribes as governments for more than two centuries. Yet it's still a surprise to many citizens - including many candidates for public office - that tribes are not part of the city, county and state systems of government. Tribes were here first and that simple fact ought to be part of our civic discourse.

Something similar could be said about the land-bridge theory.

Nearly all of our primary and secondary schools teach that early Native Americans walked across a land bridge from Siberia on a journey to this continent. It's usually said to be a "theory," and then written as if it actually happened.But what if the theory is plain wrong? No tribal creation story recalls a journey from Siberia. What if the crossing went the other direction?

"We've preserved our stories," Mankiller says. And now science is catching up. "Scientists have found bones (that are dated) before the land bridge. I wonder what they'll come up with as an explanation."

A justification for conquest

The land-bridge story matters because it was used historically to justify the conquest of North America. The line went something like this: "Indians are immigrants like everyone else, they just came earlier."

But science is changing the story. I recently attended a conference on the peopling of North America and was struck by how much of the research is now coupled with tribal creation stories. Science is listening more than ever.

But that word has not made its way across society's boundaries; our conversation is missing important nuance. It's as if we're stuck talking about what's been talked about before.

"I know what happened to our people," Mankiller says. And until that same story is taught - or at least respected - by the rest of the nation, there won't be an honest dialogue.

But then an honest dialogue is a wonderful reason to make mischief.

Besides, Mankiller says, "I can eliminate any stereotypes about what a chief looks like."

Wilma Mankiller-Bio

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