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Wilma Pearl Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller: Spirituality

From Every Day is a Good Day by Wilma Mankiller, p. 16

During my childhood my family was not involved in any type of regular religious services or activities, though we did occasionally attend one of the small community churches near our rural Adair County Oklahoma, home or participate in Cherokee Stomp Dances. Though I certainly do not consider myself a spiritual person, I have always been attracted to people of faith. Like Linda Aranaydo, I just "like to be around people who pray." By and large, people of faith, however they express their religious beliefs, seem to be concerned with the question of what it means to be a good person, an issue I have wrestled with.

When Cherokee people lived in our old country in the Southeast, there was little ambiguity about what it meant to be a good person. Everyone had clearly defined roles, and the rules of conduct governing right and correct actions were understood. A good person was prudent in relationships with others and conducted his or her affairs with honour, respect, and dignity. Each year one Cherokee ceremony in a series was conducted in each settlement for the explicit purpose of rekindling relationships, requesting forgiveness for inappropriate conduct during the previous year, and cleansing the minds of Cherokee people of any negative thoughts toward others. One can detect elements of this ceremony in contemporary Cherokee life when the following prayer is recited at the beginning of a gathering: "First, let us remove all negative thoughts from our minds so we can come together as one .. . " The primary goal of prayer is to promote a sense of oneness and unity. Negative thoughts were treated by Cherokee healers with the same medicines as wounds, headaches, or physical illness. It was believed that unchecked negative thoughts can permeate the being and manifest themselves in negative actions.

I personally experienced the power of a ceremony to remove negative thoughts when I was working for Chief Ross Swimmer in the early 1980s. Several of his senior staff opposed me and created every conceivable barrier to my community development work. Eventually my feelings of resentment toward the leader of this group generated a wide range of unwelcome emotions; I spoke to a Cherokee medicine man about the problem. He arranged a beautiful ceremony at dawn, which helped cleanse my mind, put the actions of my opponents in perspective, and enabled me to continue to work with them in a good way.

When my daughters, Felicia and Gina, and I returned to Oklahoma in the summer of 1976,1began to understand and acknowledge the spiritual dimensions of my life. We had left California with no sense of what was ahead of us.We just knew it was time to go home. When we arrived in Oklahoma, one of the first things we did was visit my old family place that my family had so reluctantly left twenty years earlier. My childhood home had burned down, and the yard and garden were overgrown with foliage, underbrush, and trees. And yet the memories were so strong, I could still clearly see my home.

The Mankiller family land defined who I am. During the period when Indian Territory was dissolved and Oklahoma became a state, the federal government attempted to destroy the Cherokee Nation by dividing up our commonly held land into individual allotments of 160 acres. The family land was allotted to my grandfather, John (Yona) Mankiller, and passed down to my father, Charley Mankiller, and my Aunt Sally Leach. I am grateful that my father rejected offers to sell the land even in the very lean times our family faced after the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocated us to San Francisco. The land held deep memories of my family and the first ten years of my life. During my early childhood, my siblings and I gathered water from a cold spring where my grandparents had also stored melons, fresh milk, and butter. We shared that spring with bobcats, mountain lions, wild pigs, and an occasional deer. With a watchful eye for snakes, we turned over rocks looking for crawdads in the icy water. The banks of the spring were covered with a profusion of watercress and fragrant mint. God surely created the spring with an abundance of love. It is protected on the east and west sides by steep hills dotted with oak, hickory, locust, and walnut trees. It is my favorite place to pray.

The spring was probably used by my grandparents for Cherokee medicine that required "going to the water." As part of a complex set of medicinal practices, it was said that dipping into water seven times during the fall when leaves fell into the water promoted healing.When I returned home, one of the first things I did was bathe in the ice-cold spring that held so many memories of my childhood.

Since we could not stay on the family land, Felicia, Gina, and I set up camp at Cherokee Landing near the site of the old Caney Creek, which now lay at the bottom of Lake Tenkiller, an artificial lake. From my childhood I could remember the time when Cherokee families camped on the banks of Caney Creek for days and cooked freshly caught fish in cast-iron skillets over an open fire.

Camping at Cherokee Landing was the best way to make the gradual transition from San Francisco to Stilwell. It was one of the rare times in my life when I had a great sense of freedom. We had no sense of urgency and few material possessions. Each day, we read or swam. At night we built a fire and listened to music on a portable radio, talked, played Scrabble by the light of a Coleman lantern, or just watched the stars. We learned to tell time by the position of the Sun and the Moon. We delighted in sudden summer storms, and we eagerly awaited the end of each day when the Sun put on a spectacular show before we settled in for the night.

It was my intent to build a home on our family land. One day I went into the Adair County Courthouse to check on a land question. As I walked across the courthouse lawn, I overheard an elder Cherokee man say to another, "That's John Mankiller's granddaughter." The anonymity of San Francisco was gone forever. I was home.

Shortly thereafter, I encountered one of my many cousins, Maude Wolfe, a weathered, attractive Cherokee grandmother who in some inexplicable way reminded me of my father. I remembered her from his funeral four years earlier. Maude invited us to a Stomp Dance at the Flint Rock Ceremonial Grounds, presided over by her husband, Jim Wolfe, chief of the Four Mother Society. The Four Mother Society started as a religious and social movement in the late 1890s to oppose individual allotment of commonly held tribal lands. My daughters, Felicia and Gina, and I accepted an invitation to become members of the society.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the grounds. There were four or five elder men sitting in lawn chairs watching a spirited game of stickball, and about a dozen other people were preparing a meal on a wood stove. Stickball is similar in some ways to the Haudenosaunee game of lacrosse. Though there arc many stories about the origin and purpose of this game, I was told that rival Cherokee settlements once played stickball to settle disputes as an alternative to conflict.

Stickball was played in conjunction with ballplayers' dances and other ceremonies. On this day, the men were playing against the women, and Maude was one of the players. The men each carried a pair of stickball sticks, and the women used their hands. The object was to catch the small, round ball and throw it at an object on the top of a very tall pole. Those who successfully hit the object won points. That day the women won.

After the game, the women teased the men about their loss as everyone gathered for a supper of chicken and dumplings; brown beans; fish; large fluffy biscuits freshly cooked on the wood stove; bean bread; casseroles; homegrown cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes; and other fresh vegetables. Later there would be strong coffee, fruit pies, cobblers, and cakes. After the meal, Jim Wolfe and some of the other elders went back to their lawn chairs, which faced east toward the Stomp Dance grounds. They smoked, chewed tobacco, and only occasionally spoke.

After nightfall, people began to slowly drift toward the Stomp Dance grounds. Soon the dance would begin. In the past, there was a ceremony in which the medicine man prepared a central fire after dancing all night, and in the morning every person in the village took a new fire home from this specially prepared central fire. Putting out home fires then relighting them from the central fire was an important symbol of community and shared relationships. Elements of that traditional Cherokee ceremony were symbolized by the fire and rituals at Flint Rock Ceremonial Grounds.

At the appropriate time, Jim Wolfe walked onto the grounds, stood near the fire, and spoke to the people in Cherokee, as Cherokee spiritual leaders have done since time immemorial. When he finished speaking, he signaled to a designated person to begin the dances. I listened to the call and response of the songs, watched the dancers, and was soon drawn to the circle. From the moment I stepped into that circle of dancers, I felt embraced by the warmth of the fire and the rhythmic sound of the stones within the terrapin shells worn by the women.The division between the past and present dissolved. I felt whole again for the first time since my childhood.

Later, I learned that Cherokee people had always participated in similar seasonal dances to commemorate new corn, harvest time, and other events in the natural cycle of life. During these ceremonies, there was always a central fire. Though there was no sermon or written or oral dogma, the experience was palpably spiritual. Spirituality was not a separate, segmented part of life. It was life.

Soon after that night Jim's daughter, Dorothy Wolfe, invited us to stay in an old house on her property, directly behind the Stomp Dance grounds. Seasoned campers by then, we were unfazed by the house's lack of indoor plumbing or other amenities We were part of a community where Cherokee was spoken, traditional medicine was a part of everyday life, people talked about and tried to interpret dreams, and Cherokee knowledge was preserved in stories. Wc felt like the wealthiest people in the world.

Spiritual practices and religious beliefs among tradition-
oriented Cherokee people differ greatly. Most are Christian and some follow traditional Cherokee ways, but outwardly there is little difference in the way tradition and Christian Cherokee people conduct their affairs, live their lives, and participate in the community.

Though Charlie and I are involved in traditional Cherokee activities and ceremonies, we regularly attend Salem Church, whose parishioners are predominately Cherokee. The services and singing are frequently conducted in the Cherokee language. the church was one of the earliest members of the Cherokee Baptist Association, which some people credit with helping to preserve the Cherokee language through using it continually. Even those who are not Christian or literate in the Cherokee language greatly treasure the hymnals and Bible written in Cherokee.

At least among some traditional leaders, the Bible is viewed as a collection of sacred stories from the people of the Middle East, which makes it more accessible. Sarah James says, "When Christianity was introduced to our people, they embraced it. They saw little difference between true Christian beliefs and our own traditional beliefs." Indeed one of the most gifted Muskogee Creek traditional leaders who regularly participated in Flint Rock activities and ceremonies was a respected Baptist preacher. He and his group told stories about staying out all night at a Creek or Cherokee Stomp Dance and attending Sunday morning church services smelling of smoke from the central fire.

Certainly there are some Cherokee preachers who actively oppose the continuation of Cherokee traditional ceremonies and lifeways but others are tolerant of spiritual differences. When we first returned to Oklahoma and visited the ceremonial grounds of Stokes Smith, we often met Cherokee preachers there. Whatever their personal religious beliefs, there was mutual respect about their respective spiritual practices. They were all Cherokee people of faith.

As we adjusted to living close to the Wolfe Stomp Dance grounds and among many members of the Wolfe family, we slowly established a relationship with the land and came to appreciate the generosity of the natural world. It sustained us. We went fishing with the extended Wolfe family where we camped by the creek. The children were allowed the freedom to play, nap, or swim all day while the adults either fished or cleaned and cooked the fresh fish. We learned to make gravy out of wild grapes that my daughters picked from vines entangled in tree limbs. I would park my station wagon near a promising tree, and Felicia and Gina climbed on top of the car to reach the vines. The harder it was to gather the grapes, the better they tasted. Toward fall, we picked apples and gathered hickory nuts and walnuts. Every time I pass a certain hickory tree near Tahlequah, I remember the windy fall day when Maude Wolfe and I stopped there to gather nuts. She didn't have a sack or a bucket, so she gathered them into the skirt of her dress. Though she was generous, she carefully guarded the locations of the places where she gathered mushrooms, wild onions, or berries.

In 1978, when I was involved in a head-on collision with my friend, Sherrye Morris, Jim Wolfe came with medicine to help me heal. It is because of him that I am able to walk today. Sherrye was killed instantly and I came so close to dying that I experienced the seductive beckoning of death and an overpowering sense of complete, total well-being. I learned a lot during that terrible time. Brushing up against death matured me and absolutely convinced me that there is a spiritual world where unconditional love abounds.

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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