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Mankiller: A Chief and Her People
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The Cherokee Word for Water
Film: The Cherokee Word for Water

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Wilma Pearl Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller: Womanhood

From Every Day is a Good Day by Wilma Mankiller, p. 98

My Great-Aunt Maggie Gourd was a very good storyteller who believed in the power of dreams. She once told us about a dream in which a large animal-a bull or a buffalo-tried to break into her house by repeatedly ramming her front door. When she woke up the next morning, her front door was badly damaged. I remember only tiny fragments of the dream stories Maggie shared, but I recall clearly that in her stories, there were no absolute lines between dreams and reality. Maggie also told us stories about Little People, Yunwi Tsunsdi, who live in rocky places like a bluff near freshwater wherever Cherokees reside. They are only about three feet tall. They sing and speak in Cherokee. ... Cherokee people describe Little People as "secondhand." It is often said that if one sees the Little People and tells about it, that person will soon die.

My mother-in-law, the late Florence Soap, told me that her father used to gather medicine for her sister from a certain place. Then one day, for the first time, he took her to a new place to look for medicine. When her sister asked him why they couldn't go back to the old place, he said the Little People told him not to come back to gather medicine there. He soon got sick and died. Florence said, "If he hadn’t told my sister about seeing the Little People, he would probably have lived longer. That's what we believe." Also, if anything out of the ordinary is found in the woods, Cherokees assume that it belongs to the Little People. If a Cherokee woman goes out to gather hickory nuts and happens on a woven basket left by another gatherer, she can pick it up and say out loud, "Little People, I am taking this basket." Then it is hers to keep. That is her right.

There were other important women in my early childhood but none more important than my mother, Irene Sitton Mankiller, who has provided me with a lifetime of unconditional love. My mother worked alongside my other siblings and my father on income-producing projects as well as the dozens of daily chores required to keep a large family fed and cared for. My mother never sat me down and said this is how you should live or this is what it means to be a woman. I learned a lot from watching her and the other women around me. I remain grateful to both my parents for never telling me, "Girls can't do that," and for letting me define for myself what it means to be a woman.

Then there were the "bless-your-little-heart" ladies. They were white Christian women who made our family one of their charities by bringing used clothing and other gifts to our small wood frame home. When I saw their big car approaching our house, I ran and hid. While walking to and from school, they would sometimes stop and offer us a ride, murmuring, "Bless your little hearts." Even at a very early age, I understood that these women thought they were better than us and that they would accept us if only we were more like them. Many years later, a white woman raising money to give college scholarships to indigenous students told me she wanted to "give pride back to the Indians." She had such a staggering sense of entitlement; she didn't know the highly insulting and patronizing nature of that statement. She reminded me of the "bless-your-little-heart" ladies from my childhood.

After we made the wrenching move to California, a number of women reached out to me. Without them, I don't know how I could ever have become a successful adult. I especially value the time I had with my maternal grandmother, Pearl Sitton, who was a reassuring presence during a time when I felt confused, lost, and out of place in San Francisco. In school I was teased a lot and labeled as different because I had an unusual last name, spoke with an Oklahoma accent, and looked "ethnic." But the biggest differences stemmed from the very divergent life experiences of the other children and me. While they had learned to ride a bicycle, skate on roller skates, or play with the hula hoop, I had never even spoken on a telephone or used a flush commode before our arrival in San Francisco.

During my adolescence, I spent most summers with Grandma Sitton and lived with her for a year while attending the eighth grade at Lone Tree School in nearby Escalon, California. Grandma Sitton was an extremely independent and affectionate woman who had moved to California to start over again after the death of my grandfather. She liked to sing gospel songs as she worked in the house or in the garden. She was a disciplined woman who was up before sunrise each morning and in bed shortly after nightfall. It was clear where my mother got her work values.

Several single mothers at the San Francisco Indian Center made quite an impression on me as well. They held clerical or professional jobs, did volunteer work at the Indian center, and helped each other. My sister and I watched their children while they went dancing in the ballroom of the San Francisco Indian Center or some other fun place. On Saturday night, they gathered at Justine Buckskin's house to joke and tease each other as they got ready for their big night out. I loved watching the women work their hair into impossibly high hairdos, glue it together with Aqua Net hair spray, and then teeter out the front door on high heels, assuring us they would be back by midnight, a goal they never met. To a twelve-year-old, their lives seemed full and exciting. Much later I learned that they found their beautiful Saturday night outfits in the clothing bins at Saint Vincent de Paul's thrift shop on Fourteenth and Mission Streets, and that they often struggled to make ends meet, relying on one another to get from one payday to the next. Though they adjusted to life in the city, they longed to return to their tribal communities, and most eventually did. These women were resourceful, doing the best they could with what they had and taking the time to find joy in their families, friendships, and their special nights out. Even today the heavy scent of Aqua Net hair spray makes me smile and remember those resilient women.

Like my counterparts at the Indian center, a beehive hairdo was perched precariously on my head when I was married just a few days before my eighteenth birthday in November of 1963. My husband expected me to step completely away from involvement in the Indian center and from my birth family. It was a tall order. I had an avid interest in social justice issues and the extraordinary world around me. At that time in San Francisco, there were many debates and discussions of Red Power, civil rights, and women's rights. Musicians Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were introducing a completely new sound to a generation now known as baby boomers, and the Haight-Ashbury district was becoming a mecca for middle-class young people. There was a free-speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley and massive anti-war demonstrations throughout the Bay Area. By the time I was twenty-three, any notion that I could live my life as a wife and mother as defined by my husband and the social constraints of that time was gone forever. I became involved in the community, started thinking about attending college, and the beehive hairdo, makeup, and heels were replaced by long straight hair and sensible shoes.

In 1976 when my daughters, Felicia and Gina, and I returned to Oklahoma, I was more independent, self-confident, and had acquired some knowledge of land and treaty rights as well as grant-writing skills. I also had an abiding faith in the ability of Cherokee people to solve their own problems, and I immediately began developing community-based programs that reflected that philosophy. At that time, there were no female executives with the Cherokee Nation-and there had never been a female deputy chief or principal chief. in historic times, women played an important role in Cherokee government and in tribal life, but that role had diminished over time. As Cherokee people began to intermarry with whites and adopt the values of the larger society, women increasingly assumed a secondary role. When I first ran for election as deputy principal chief in 1983, it seemed the strong role of women in Cherokee life had been forgotten by some of our own people. I vividly remember a man standing up in a campaign meeting and telling me, "Cherokee Nation will be the laughingstock of all the tribes if we elect a woman." Though there was considerable opposition to my candidacy, I was elected to serve a four-year term as the first female deputy principal chief in Cherokee history. I thought this was my summit in tribal government, but I was elected to serve as principal chief in 1987-the first woman to hold that position-and resoundingly reelected again in 1991.

By the time I left office in 1995, after not seeking a fourth four-year term of office, there were fewer questions about whether or not women should be in leadership positions in the Cherokee Nation. If people opposed me, it was because they disagreed with my policies, not just because I am female. Cherokee people are more concerned about competency-about whether the Head Start bus shows up on time or whether they are properly diagnosed at the health clinics- than whether a woman is leading the nation. In a way, my elections were a step forward for women and a step into the Cherokee tradition of balance between men and women.

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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