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Leaders as Guides of Return: Wilma Mankiller

Mankiller Book

In her book, Revolution from Within (1992), Gloria Steinem tells a story about her close friend and collaborator Wilma Mankiller, who died yesterday. In the excerpt below (pages 94 to 98), Steinem describes how Mankiller, even before she became the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, led by empowering her people.

Bell, a town in a rough and rural part of eastern Oklahoma with about 300 mostly Cherokee families, had no school that went above the eighth grade, little indoor plumbing, a lot of conflict, and widespread hopelessness. Because residents were dependent on government handouts and treated as invisible to the outside world, they had come to feel powerless over their fates; adults with all the vulnerabilities of childhood and none of the rewards. The few who managed to escape were often ashamed to admit they had ever lived in Bell.

When Wilma Mankiller, a Cherokee community renewal leader, said she wanted to start a project there, she received two warnings from people who knew Bell: first, “these people” would never work, much less volunteer, to help themselves; and second, she shouldn’t stay in town after nightfall.

Nonetheless, she posted notices in Cherokee and English asking people to come to a town meeting to discuss “what you would like Bell to look like in ten years.” No one came. She called another meeting. A handful of residents came, but only to complain. She called a third, and convinced now that she really wanted to listen, about a dozen people showed up.

“I’ve always trusted disenfranchised people to come up with their own ideas,” Wilma said later. Therefore, she didn’t dictate or even suggest. She just asked a question: “What single thing would change this community the most?”

The answer was not a project for school dropouts or any other program to help young people who still had a hope of escaping Bell, which was what Wilma had expected. Instead, they chose something that was more democratic and crucial to everyone, regardless of age or intention to leave: a water supply that was connected to every house, plus indoor plumbing. This would cut school dropout rates, too, as they explained to Wilma. Their kids had to bathe in polluted streams or in water carried from a single spigot outside the schoolhouse, and when they failed to bathe as often as their less poor classmates in Stillwell, a neighboring town with the nearest high school, they were ridiculed.

Just as Wilma had started this process with a question that gave residents the power of choice, she continued it with a bargain that gave them an equal role in what they had chosen. She would get the supplies, federal support, engineers, and other experts—but only if the residents built the water system themselves and also helped with the fund-raising. After generations of broken promises, they were full of skepticism about outside help, and after generations of passivity, also full of self-doubt. Nonetheless, they named themselves the Bell Water and Housing Project, and began.

Each family was assigned a mile of pipe to lay. Those who knew English also worked on fund-raising plans, and those who spoke Cherokee did everything from marking the path of ditches to carrying sand for backfill, but all knew their jobs were vital to the project. Though the women had been “just part of the woodwork,” as Wilma put it—and were also convinced they were too weak to carry pipe or do construction tasks—they soon discovered it wasn’t any harder than water carrying and their usual household chores. Wilma knew the group’s spirits had begun to rise when families started a relay race to see who could lay pipe the fastest.

Though failure had been the unanimous prediction of Bell’s neighbors, people from surrounding communities came to see what was happening. So did several foundation executives who viewed this renewal project as an example of Third World development; certainly few places in the world were poorer than Bell. When a local CBS television crew—attracted by Bell’s reliable scenes of poverty—came to film powerlessness, they played an inadvertent role in changing the situation by letting residents see themselves on the evening news and begin to feel less isolated. Soon, even the non-Indian residents of Bell were saying positive things about this water project in the newspapers, and the Indian community began to feel visible for the first time. Most important, they had become visible through something they were doing for themselves.

The next 14 months encompassed a novel’s worth of personal change and problem-solving, but by their end, the water system was complete. The CBS crew returned to document success, and the seven-minute story that resulted appeared on “CBS Sunday Morning” with Charles Kuralt. Now known as “the town film,” it is often replayed with pride.

Having grown from the dozen residents who attended the first meeting to a group that included most families, the Bell group now decided to start its next project: housing. Again, Wilma got federal funds—but no federal contractors. The residents were to do the work themselves. “Even if families didn’t like each other,” as Wilma explained, “they were learning to work together. They were beginning to bond as a community.” Because federal funds had been earmarked for Indians only, the five or six non-Indian families in Bell weren’t eligible for housing funds. After careful discussion, the Cherokee community decided to hold fund-raisers so those families could benefit, too, even though some had behaved badly toward them in the past. As always, self-esteem had created an ability to be generous: in this case, it began to restore the Indian principle of reciprocity, wrongly characterized as “Indian giving” by whites but really a balance of giving and receiving.

At that first meeting in 1979, the most often heard sentiment had been: “It’s always been like this; nothing will change.” Now, it was: “Look what we’ve done; what else could we take on?” Since renovating Bell’s housing, members of the steering committee have overseen a senior citizen education project, an annual “fund-raising powwow,” a speakers’ bureau that carries Bell’s lessons to other rural communities, and a bilingual education program to help preserve the Cherokee language and culture. The school dropout rate has fallen, and other nearby communities like Burnt Cabin and Cherry Tree have begun water and housing projects, too. Those who were once ashamed of living in Bell had become proud.

But for Wilma, watching individual people flower was the greatest reward. Sue and Thomas Muscrat, a Head Start worker and farmhand respectively, had been too unconfident and skeptical to speak up at all in the early meetings. They became members of the school board and the speakers’ bureau. With beadwork, drawings, and elkhorn carvings they had always made but realized had value only after outsiders commented on their beauty, they opened a craft store. Because their one son had grown up before this change in their lives, they decided to share their good fortune by adopting a child, an abused, part-Cherokee little boy from Dallas.

As for Wilma Mankiller herself, you may have heard of her. In 1987, the Cherokee Nation—which includes many residents of Oklahoma and five more states—elected her Principal Chief, the first woman to hold this office that carries more responsibility than those of state governor and U.S. senator combined. One of the 11 children of a Cherokee farmer turned longshoreman and an Irish-Dutch mother from Stillwell who had defied her family to cast her lot with the Cherokees, Wilma is a political activist as well as a gifted organizer, mother, administrator, and creative leader.

Still, she was criticized by some in her nation who said a woman shouldn’t be chief. Though in the old days a council of grandmothers had chosen the tribal leaders, even decided if wars should be fought, many Cherokees have absorbed the values of the male-dominant society around them in the centuries since then. When she ran again in 1991, Wilma was opposed as Principal Chief by two male candidates, but most Cherokee people knew she was giving them back the most precious possession: their self-esteem. She won reelection by an unprecedented 83 percent of the vote. The projects she has helped to start during her reign as chief range from adult literacy programs to a communally owned manufacturing plant, and she oversees a total annual budget of $54 million, more than half of which is now self-generated by the Cherokee Nation. Before community renewal programs began, 80 percent of all funds came from the federal government.

Wilma Mankiller became the best kind of leader: one who creates independence, not dependence; who helps people go back to a collective broken place and begin to heal themselves. Though there is a long way to go before the Cherokee Nation restores in a new form the dignity and self-sufficiency it knew 500 years ago, before the terrible centuries of genocide and the banning of even the Cherokee language and religion, now there is a way of making progress that is their own.

Wilma Mankiller—1945 to 2010

Wilma Mankiller, feminist and for 10 years Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation (1985 to 1995), died of pancreatic cancer April 6, 2010. Author of an autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People (1999) and Every Day Is a Good Day (2004), and coeditor of The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History (1998), she received many honors, among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Bill Clinton.

In a tribute, current Principal Chief Chad Smith said: “We are better people and a stronger tribal nation because of her example of Cherokee leadership, statesmanship, humility, grace, determination and decisiveness. . . Her gift to us is the lesson that our lives and future are for us to decide. We can carry on that Cherokee legacy by teaching our children that lesson.” The White House released a statement in which President Barack Obama commended her, saying she “transformed the Nation-to-Nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the Federal Government, and served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America.”

Mankiller requested that any gifts in her honor be made as donations to One Fire Development Corporation, a non-profit dedicated to advancing Native American communities through economic development, and to valuing the wisdom that exists within each of the diverse tribal communities around the world. Tax deductible donations can be made at www.wilmamankiller.com as well as www.onefiredevelopment.org. The mailing address for One Fire Development Corporation is 1220 Southmore, Houston, TX 77004.

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Gloria Steinem
Co-founder, Women's Media Center, writer, activist
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