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Wilma Pearl Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller: Wilma Speaking About Her Life in Her Own Words

From Every Day is a Good Day by Wilma Mankiller, p. 46

My early childhood in an isolated, predominately Cherokee community shaped the way I view the world. I learned a lot about community and reciprocity by observing how our extended family and neighbours depended on one another for support and survival. In those days, everyone helped one another, sometimes trading goods – eggs for milk or farm goods for store-bought goods. People were not as hurried as they are today, and visitors sometimes stayed well into the night or until the next day. While the adults played cards or talked, we children played games such as hide-and-seek, kick the can, or marbles. Occasionally we held a contest to see who could ring the most wall nails with the rubber rings from mason jars. We also made up new games. The natural world was our playground, and we used our imaginations to invent interesting things to do. During the day, we spent scant time in the small wood frame house built by my father – our work and play was mostly outside. Time was defined by the natural rhythms of the land. Even today some Cherokee elders describe events by the time when certain crops are ripe or foods are gathered, rather than by a calendar, and they can tell time by the Sun with great accuracy.

We had little access to the world outside our community. There was no paved road near our house. We had no indoor plumbing, electricity, or even a well. When we were not working, our family passed the time by playing board games, cards, or listening to stories. There were stories about owls as bearers of bad news and stories about outlaws such as Pretty Boy Floyd burying treasure nearby, arranging for it to be guarded by rattlesnakes. We heard stories about Cherokee Little People who could sometimes be heard speaking Cherokee or singing near freshwater springs and creeks. Most of the stories taught a valuable lesson about life.

Yet our childhood was not always an idyllic time of playing and games. Each morning we walked the three miles to Rocky Mountain School and then back again at the end of the day. And my family and everyone else in our community worked very hard. My sister Linda and I sometimes gathered water for drinking and household use from a freshwater spring about a quarter mile from our home. My older brothers and sisters cut wood, hauled water, helped wash an endless supply of clothing and dishes, and even contributed to the family income by earning money picking beans or strawberries or cutting wood for railroad ties. But it was my oldest brother, Louis Donald, who worked the hardest. He went with my father to Colorado, along with other Cherokee men, to cut broomcorn. The money he and my father earned bought clothes and shoes for my siblings and me for the winter.

While preparing logs to sell for railroad ties, my sister Frances severely cut her knee and had to be taken to Hastings Indian Hospital in Tahlequah. After her hospitalizations, she stayed with relatives for some time. Not too long after that terrible accident, my father signed our family up for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Relocation Program, which promised a better life for our family. We had no idea what to expect when we gathered at the train depot in Stilwell, Oklahoma, in the fall of 1957 to prepare for the journey to San Francisco.

We didn’t know how to prepare for or even think about our new life in San Francisco. The farthest we had been from home was about forty miles away to the Muskogee County Fair. It is a gross understatement to describe our relocation experience as a culture shock. Checking into the old Keys Hotel in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco was like landing on Mars. The sights, smells and feel of the place were dramatically different from anything we had ever known. The better life the Bureau of Indian Affairs promised us turned out to be a minimum-wage job for my father and Louis Donald and life in a tough urban housing project for our family. Like many other families relocated from their tribal homelands to the cities, we made connections with other Native people who had been relocated to San Francisco from reservations and tribal communities across the United States. Our social life centered on the old San Francisco Indian Centre, where my father found a Cherokee-speaking family to converse with. That Indian centre burned down not too long before the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969.

When the Alcatraz occupation occurred in November of 1969, I was a twenty-three-year-old housewife and mother of two young daughters. I had married Hector Hugo Olaya, an Ecuadorian college student, just before my eighteenth birthday. My husband had definite and fairly narrow ideas about the role of women. I was to be attractive, an excellent cook, a great household manager, and devote most of my energy and time to being his wife and the mother of our children. It is a role that some women relish but one that I could not fill, even though I tried. Sometimes I would just look across the room at the father of my children and wish I could find a way to be the person he wanted me to be. It was just not possible. I wanted to be engaged in the world around me, to be involved in politics, civil rights, women’s rights. San Francisco was an exciting place to be in the early 1970s. I wanted to learn more about the Cherokee world I had left more than a decade earlier. And I wanted to be part of a community again.

As I became increasingly active in the Pit River Tribe’s land claim struggle, as well as the Bay Area Indian community, tensions rose in my relationship with my husband. It was difficult trying to balance all that. He had the only car and determined when and where we would go when we traveled out of the city. One simple act of independence changed all that. I secretly withdrew money from our joint saving account and bought my own car – a new candy-apple red Mazda.

I loved that car. With my daughters, Felicia and Gina, I visited the Rags and Ida Steele family on the Pomo Ranchero, where we were always warmly welcomed. It was such a joy to leave the Bay Area and travel less than one hundred miles to an indigenous world that welcomed and embraced us. While at Kashia Ranchero, we stayed in the Steele Family’s small wood frame house, which was not unlike the home of my childhood. In warm months, Ida had a “cook place” in front of the house where she prepared thick tortillas on a grill over an open fire. She filled these tortillas with tiny surf fish and the fresh seaweed we had gathered in old and battered but still sturdy Pomo baskets. One of my fondest memories of that time is going to the ocean with a group of Pomo women to gather seaweed for the evening meal. Rags worked at a local winery, so we always had fine wine with our meals and plenty of it afterward as well. At night we often sat outside and the Steele family shared stories about Pomo history and culture. We loved Kashia. Felicia and Gina danced in the Kashia Round House where Pomo elder Essie Parrish presided, and we attended the Strawberry Festival, which always reminded me of my Oklahoma hometown of Stilwell, which also hosts an annual strawberry festival and claims to be the strawberry capital of the world.

We traveled to Pit River in Yurok Country and to central California to visit the Mono people. in 1974 Maxine Steele and I packed up the Mazda, gathered our children, and left for the Colville Reservation to attend a spiritual gathering following the Wounded Knee occupation. Maxine’s brother Charley and my brother Richard had both been at the occupation in South Dakota. When we arrived at the camp, the first thing we noticed was the tight security. This was during the height of federal paranoia about the American Indian movement, especially for anyone who had participated in the Wounded Knee occupation. Strong young men wearing red armbands protected the camp from intruders, just as their ancestors had done so long ago.

Once inside the camp, many tents and campfires could be seen. We could hear Dakota-movement musician Floyd Red Crow Westerman singing and playing the guitar. There were meeting in some of the tents. I felt so honoured to be invited to sit in on a couple of the meetings. I never said a word. I just listened. It was in those tents that I heard people, some quite elderly, speaking passionately about their willingness to fight to protect tribal life ways and lands. I also made mental note of the decorum of the group, which was circumspect and respectful to one another. Leadership, as in historic Cherokee communities, was exerted by the power of persuasion, not by threat of force or coercion. We traveled to many other tribal communities and events all over the West Coast. By the time I finally traded the red Mazda to my brother for a buffalo robe, my marriage was over, and I knew I would soon be going home to Oklahoma.

My first job with the Cherokee Nation began in October of 1977. People did not quite know what to make of me. I cheerfully worked longer hours than most anyone, and I would do whatever it took to get something done. My secretary would often find me sitting on the floor of my office trying to collate a grant proposal while my colleagues were worrying about the state of their bouffant hairdos. By then I had an abiding belief that a distinct and vibrant Cherokee culture which should be more fully supported existed in some historic Cherokee communities.

Cherokee traditional identity is tied to both an individual and collective determination to follow a good path, be responsible and loving, and help one another – or as some Cherokee traditionalists say, “Not let go of one another.” The whole self-help concept of community development and the founding of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department was based on the simple premise that when given the resources and opportunity, tradition-oriented Cherokee people will help each other and take on projects for the larger community good. Gadugi, or working collectively for the common good, is an abiding attribute of Cherokee culture.

copyright Wilma Mankiller

Every Day is a Good Day

Mankiller, Wilma.  Everyday is a Good Day:  Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women.  Golden, Colorado:  Fulcrum Publishing, 2004

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