Perspectives on Indian Issues the Lives of Two Leaders Illumine the Native-American Experience

By Elizabeth Levitan Spaid. Elizabeth Levitan Spaid is on the Monitor's . | The Christian Science Monitor, January 1, 1994 | Go to article overview

Perspectives on Indian Issues the Lives of Two Leaders Illumine the Native-American Experience


Elizabeth Levitan Spaid. Elizabeth Levitan Spaid is on the Monitor's ., The Christian Science Monitor


WILMA MANKILLER, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and United States Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D) of Colorado, share at least two things in common: Both are Indians who came from humble beginnings and both rose above some daunting odds to become revered leaders among native Americans and the US population in general.

Both have also written books about their lives. In different ways, these books are an inspirational read for anyone.

In "Mankiller: A Chief and Her People," the Cherokee leader teamed up with writer Michael Wallis to tell a first-person account of her life and the history of the Cherokees. Ms. Mankiller's story begins more than 400 years ago when the first Europeans set foot in America. At that time, the Cherokees lived in the southeastern US. Their complex culture eroded during the next three centuries as Europeans emigrated to the North American continent, often killing, stealing, cheating, and wreaking havoc on them and other native peoples. In 1838, the federal government ordered the Cherokees to resettle on land in Oklahoma. Their journey is known as the Trail of Tears, because thousands perished from cold and lack of food during the forced march.

Mankiller was born in Oklahoma to an Irish mother and Cherokee father whose ancestors survived the Trail of Tears. She was one of 11 children, and though extremely poor, the family was happy. In 1945, when she was 10, she experienced a modern-day version of removal under the US government's policy of relocating Indians to urban areas.

The Mankillers moved to a seedy section of San Francisco - a foreign world of sirens, slums, and neon lights. Here Mankiller went to school, married, and had two children. But the Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island galvanized her to become active in native American civil rights.

When she moved back to Oklahoma in the early 1970s, she took a position with the Cherokee Nation. Her organizing skills, enthusiasm, and hard work caught the attention of then Principal Chief Ross Swimmer, who asked her to run as his deputy chief in 1983. In 1987, she ran for and won the top spot when Chief Swimmer stepped down. She has accomplished all this despite several severe physical difficulties.

Today, with Mankiller at the helm, the Cherokees continue to try to reestablish some of the balance their tribe lost centuries ago. That includes restoring the status of women. "One of the new values Europeans brought to the Cherokees was a lack of balance and harmony between men and women. It was what we today call sexism. This was not a Cherokee concept," writes Mankiller, who experienced death threats and blatant sexism when she ran for chief.

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