Thursday, August 4, 2016
August 4, 2016: Native American Leaders: Wilma Mankiller
[August 1st marks the 150th anniversary of Cherokee Chief John Ross’s death. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ross and other native leaders, leading up to a weekend Guest Post from one of our most talented and significant Native Studies scholars.]
On how a trailblazing leader reflects the best and worst of contemporary native communities.
Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010) is sometimes erroneously referred to as the first female Principal Chief of a Native American tribe (that hyperlinked New York Times obituary refers to her as such); both Alice Brown Davis of the Seminoles and Mildred Cleghorn of the Apaches led their tribes in the 20th century, and many other women led tribes in earlier eras. Yet Mankiller, who served as the Cherokee’s Principal Chief from 1985 to 1995, was indeed that tribe’s first female chief, as well as a groundbreaking late 20th century American leader and activist in every sense. She published the bestselling autobiography Mankiller: A Chief and Her People (1999), received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton in 1998, was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and garnered numerous other accolades and successes. She was more than deserving of consideration as one of the nominated “Women on 20s,” before Harriet Tubman received that honor earlier this year.
If we step back from those unquestionable, individual successes and accomplishments to consider Mankiller’s tenure as Principal Chief through a communal lens, she likewise accomplished a great deal that embodies the best of late 20th and early 21st century Native American communities. From the outset of her service (which began in 1985 when she was deputy chief and principal chief Ross Swimmer moved to a position with the Bureau of Indian Affairs; Mankiller was subsequently re-elected in both 1987 and 1991), Mankiller emphasized community development on a number of levels. She created the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department, which helped initiate local infrastructure and economic projects such as building a hydroelectric facililty and establishing tribally owned businesses (and continues its work to this day). She also revived the tribal high school, advocated for more sovereignty in the tribe’s relationship to the US government, and made increasing the tribe’s population a priority, with a resulting tripling of Cherokee citizenship over the course of her tenure. In all these ways, Mankiller helped push back on both the continuing vanishing of Native Americans from our collective narratives and the very real conditions on reservations and in tribal communities, making the Cherokee a highly visible and vibrant community through her efforts.
As with any leader, Mankiller’s service was not without its controversies, and the most prominent embodies a much less attractive side of contemporary native communities. One of her first efforts as tribal leader was to establish a law that excluded (disinrolled) the Cherokee Freedmen from tribal citizenship; the Freedmen are descendents of the African Americans who were held as slaves by the tribe prior to the Civil War and became both free and Cherokee citizens after the war (thanks in part to the 1866 Reconstruction Treaty about which I wrote in Monday’s John Ross post). The aftermath of this law has continued to unfold for both the freedmen and the tribe, including a 2006 Cherokee Supreme Court decision that reinrolled the freedmen and a 2007 amendment of the tribal constitution that disinrolled them once more, among other controversial moments. While of course every tribe has the right and responsibility to decide who qualifies for membership—and while the stakes are certainly real and high for such decisions—it’s hard for me to see the disrollment of the Cherokee Freedmen as anything other than a continuation of the oppression that first brought the slaves into the tribe. And more broadly, such decisions emphasize present community at the explicit expense of history—and at their best, Mankiller and her efforts wedded the present to the past, as all great leaders do.
Last leaders tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Native American leaders or figures you’d highlight?