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
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
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
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