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Wilma Pearl Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller: The Way Home

From Every Day is a Good Day by Wilma Mankiller, p. 148

The question I am asked most frequently is why I remain such a positive person, after surviving breast cancer, lymphoma, dialysis, two kidney transplants, and systemic myasthenia gravis. The answer is simple: I am Cherokee, and I am a woman. No one knows better than I that every day is indeed a good day. How can I be anything but positive when I come from a tenacious, resilient people who keep moving forward with an eye toward the future even after enduring unspeakable hardship? How can I not be positive when I have lived longer than I ever dreamed possible and my life plays itself out in a supportive community of extended family and friends? There is much to be thankful for. Though I am an ordinary woman, I have been blessed with many extraordinary experiences. I have been privileged to travel extensively, meet world leaders like Nelson Mandela, represent tribal people in meetings with several United States presidents, and work with visionary tribal leaders and activists.        
I learned at a fairly early age that I cannot always control the things that are sent my way or the things that other people do, but I can most certainly control how I think about them and react to them. I don't spend a lot of time dwelling on the negative. I believe that having a good, peaceful mind is the basic premise for a good life. My sense of faith, hope, and optimism stems in part from being a Cherokee woman and in part from a cool November morning in 1978.

After a quick glance at the morning news, I poured a cup of coffee and headed out the door. I had no idea my life would soon change forever. About three miles from my home, I started up a slight grade. On the other side of the hill, my friend Sherrye Morris pulled out to pass two slow-moving cars. When I came to the top of the hill, her car was in my lane. Our cars hit head on. I have very little recollection of what happened immediately after the accident. I was in shock from my injuries and loss of blood. I vaguely remember there was blood everywhere, and people were screaming. By the time an ambulance took the driver of the other car, Sherrye, to Tahlequah, her life had already slipped away. I was taken by ambulance to Stilwell, where I was stabilized and then transferred to a regional hospital in Fort Smith, Arkansas. As the ambulance sped towards Fort Smith, death beckoned me with an intense overall feeling of peacefulness and warmth. I felt a carefree lightness and an overpowering pull toward an unconditional, all-encompassing love. Everything in that world was perfect. I had begun a beautiful and sacred journey toward the land of the Creator when my daughters, Felicia and Gina, came into my mind and I returned to this world. That near-death experience made a significant difference in the way I have lived my life. Alter that, I no longer feared death, and I no longer feared life. 

Now from a distance of more than two decades. I look back on that terrible November day and wonder what Sherrye's life would have been like if she could have lived beyond her early thirties and been able to watch her sensitive, smart daughter, Meghan, grow into a focused young woman who works on a range of social justice issues. And I wonder what my life would have been like if the Creator had not sent so many challenges my way.

The first challenge after the accident was learning that one leg was so badly crushed that amputation was a possibility, and permanent disability was very probable. The other leg was broken in several places and my face and chest were crushed. Though no one spoke about it. I knew there had been another car involved in the accident. After three weeks in the hospital, I was coming to grips with my injuries when Mike Morris gave me the devastating news about his wife, Sherrye.   There are no words to describe the disbelief and pain I experienced during the next days, weeks, and months as I dealt with Sherrye's death and my own extensive injuries. By the time I had recovered enough to return to work, I had endured seventeen separate surgeries, mostly on my legs. I was once told that the most lovely and precious flowers can be seen only in the bottom of a very deep valley. I have been in that valley and seen those incredible flowers. The steep climb out of the valley made me stronger and more mature. After that it was hard to envision what it would take to really rattle me. I am convinced that those experiences prepared me for the position of principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and for the other challenges that awaited me.

When I returned to work eighteen months after the accident, our principal chief, Ross Swimmer, assigned me the task of working with a team to develop self-help housing and water projects in rural historic Cherokee communities. Working primarily with Charlie Soap, a bilingual Cherokee with a reputation for being able to “get things done," we developed several successful projects in a number of communities. All of that work validated my belief that Cherokee people are mutually supportive and willing to help each other. After these projects were completed, it would be difficult for anyone to ever again argue that Cherokees did not have the capacity to solve their own problems, given the resources and right set of circumstances. Based on our work in communities, the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department was formed, and I became its founding director, a position I held until 1983 when Ross Swimmer bypassed all his male political allies and chose me for his running mate.

Ross Swimmer and I were quite the team. He is a Republican. I am a Democrat. In those days, Cherokee candidates put together a slate or team of candidates for all elective offices: principal chief, deputy principal chief, and fifteen legislators or members of the tribal council. By the time I informed Ross Swimmer I would accept his offer to seek the office of deputy principal chief, all his council slate had been chosen, and they all opposed my candidacy-but none more than the Swimmer team campaign manager, Councilman Gary Chapman. Chapman had hoped to be chosen to run as deputy chief on Ross Swimmer's ticket, but Swimmer disqualified him because both he and Chapman were senior officials of the First National Bank, a depository of Cherokee Nation funds. The Swimmer/Mankiller campaign was run out of Chapman’s garage.

So I faced opposition from within the Swimmer campaign as well as from the two other candidates who filed for the office of deputy principal chief. On more than one occasion, Charlie Soap, my future husband, tried to convince me that Swimmer’s people were not campaigning for me or even supporting me. Though I knew they did not support me, I refused to accept the notion that some of Swimmer’s people were actively working against me. Once, Ross Swimmer called to ask me if I had been campaigning in bars, something I would not even remotely consider. The source of this rumor was Gary Chapman. Toward the end of the campaign, I was asked by Swimmer campaign workers to take campaign-related information to the Stilwell newspaper. Out of curiosity I opened the manila envelope and discovered ads for Ross Swimmer for chief and my opponent, J. B. Dreadfulwater, for deputy principal chief. Charlie was right. I finally got it!

Charlie and I developed our own campaign strategy, and we both worked very hard right up until two weeks before the election when Charlie had to leave for an overseas trip. A small crew of volunteers, along with my mother, my girls, and my brothers and sisters, worked until we were exhausted. My brother Jim had an old van that we loaded up with signs to put up along country roads. On the day of the election, I decided not to stay at the "watch party” with the Swimmer campaign group. Instead, I went to Tallahassee Muscogee Creek Ceremonial Grounds and danced until the Sun came up. In the morning, I called Tahlequah and learned that Ross Swimmer had won the election and that I faced Agnes Cowen in a run-off election. After a relatively uneventful campaign, I won the run-off election.

When Ross Swimmer resigned in 1985 to take a position in Washington, D.C., I moved into the position of principal chief to fill out his term. It was up to the tribal council to fill the vacant position of deputy chief from their ranks. The names of three candidates emerged: Clarence Sunday, a respected elder and former associate of Chief Bill Keeler; John Ketcher, a sixty-two-year-old bilingual Cherokee; and Gary Chapman.  Two weeks before the council meeting in which my successor would be chosen, I asked my old nemesis, Chapman, if he was a candidate for deputy chief, and he denied any interest in the position. Then just before the council meeting, a friend called me in Washington, D.C., to inform me of a plan by some members of the council to seat Chapman, and then remove me from office. Chapman would then become principal chief, and one of his supporting council members would become deputy chief. I thought this was just another political rumor but decided to check it out anyway. I quickly discovered Chapman was indeed a candidate for deputy chief and had the commitment of most council members. At that time I did not know whether Chapman was leading an effort to oust me so he could become principal chief or if he just wanted to become deputy chief. Whatever his motives, I knew that if he obtained the position, he would oppose me at every opportunity. I flew home from Washington the night before the council meeting, and Charlie and I went to work on the telephone, slept for a couple of hours, and got on the telephone again first thing in the morning. Our goal was to stop Chapman and find a viable alternative candidate. First I called John Ketcher and asked him to remain a candidate. I asked John to work on the three undecided council members while I called the others. Meanwhile, Sunday agreed to support Ketcher. The next morning, I sat in the council chambers and watched the council members file in with full knowledge that my political future in the Cherokee Nation was at stake. Chapman and his supporters appeared confident, jostling and joking with one another.

The successful deputy chief candidate had to receive two-thirds of the vote of the council. From the outset the vote was split between Ketcher and Chapman. The council recessed, negotiated, and voted again. The vote was the same. A member of the council asked who would work best with me. People around me advised me to remain neutral because I had to work with whomever the council selected. Not being very familiar with neutrality, I stood up and gave John Ketcher my unequivocal support.  The council recessed again, negotiated, and voted again.  The vote had not changed, and it was clear that no change was in sight.  At that time Chapman withdrew his candidacy.  The council then immediately voted unanimously for Ketcher, one of the finest men I know.

John and I served out the rest of that term and we were elected for two more four-year terms.  In 1994 both John Ketcher and I decided against seeking office in the upcoming 1995 elections.  After working many years as an employee of the nation and then serving three four-year terms in elective office, I decided it was time for a change for me and for the Cherokee Nation. And, I had a nagging feeling that something was physically wrong.

Six months after I left office, while serving as a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College, I was diagnosed with second-stage lymphoma.  Since there were no comparable treatment facilities near my home in Oklahoma, I remained in Boston for almost eight months while undergoing chemotherapy treatments.  My world suddenly shifted and narrowed considerably.  A year earlier Diné (Navajo) Chairman Peterson Zah and I had led a delegation to meet with President Clinton on behalf of all tribal nations.  Now my days were spent pouring over the results of bone scans, gallium scans, X-rays, waiting to learn whether my white and red blood cell counts were up or down and seeing whether the chemotherapy had shrunk the tumor.  During the time I was being treated for lymphoma, I was being sued by the very controversial Joe Byrd administration, which succeeded me at the Cherokee Nation in 1995. Joe Byrd and the tribal council eventually dropped the civil suit against me for granting severance pay to employees who left when my term of office ended, citing incorrect information as the reason they had initiated the lawsuit.  But by then I had already spent thousands of dollars to defend myself and months alternating between chemotherapy treatments and responding to dozens of interrogatories and motions.  Once I had to fly back to Oklahoma for a deposition where I faced a battery of lawyers for Byrd, including Susan Plumb, Gary Chapman’s daughter.

That time in Boston was very difficult. For the first time in my life, I felt completely alone and vulnerable as I defended myself against my own body and external threats such as the lawsuit. Though many people loved and rallied around me, that period of illness and feeling attacked from every possible front was a solitary journey. Even the most empathetic healthy person cannot fully understand the tremendous emotional, intellectual, and physical changes that occur when you are diagnosed with a serious illness. During this time of trauma and stress, I was 2,000 miles away from my family and community in a place where nothing was familiar. It was extremely disorienting. I learned a lot from the experience, mostly about myself. I never lost my sense of determination or humor during that period. I still laugh when I remember being suddenly frightened and startled when I unexpectedly caught a glimpse of my bald, pale, thin self in a mirror.

I willed myself to remain spiritually strong through prayer, meditation, and relaxation exercises. I sang, played guitar, and tried to do something positive every day. After chemotherapy, radiation, and stem cell transplants, the lymphoma became quiet. Once I was able to return to my home in Mankiller Flats, surrounded by the land that I love, the first thing I did was walk to the freshwater spring of my childhood, sit in my usual spot facing east, and say a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving that I was able to come full circle to this special place where my life began.

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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