Remembering Wilma Mankiller, Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma

Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to be elected chief of a major American Indian tribe,  who led the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995,  died of pancreatic cancer on the sixth of April at her home near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, at the age of sixty-four.

I have the fondest memories of visiting with her in August 1991, on assignment for PARADE magazine, and reprint my article here as a tribute to a wonderful person whose presence among us is now so greatly missed:


“MY LIFE MAY BE UNUSUAL, BUT not to the Indian world,” says Chief Wilma Mankiller, 45, whose name goes back to that of a Cherokee warnor. “My ability to survive personal crises is really a mark of the character of my people. Individually and collectively, we react with a tenacity that allows us again and again to bounce back from adversity.”

The first woman to become principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, she speaks softly but with an undercurrent of urgency and commitment. From the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah in northeast Oklahoma’s “green country,” where she was born, Wilma Mankiller
guides the second-largest Indian nation in the U.S. (only the Navajo Nation is larger), with a population of more than 120,000, an annual budget of $54 million and more than 800 employees spread across 7000 square miles.

“It’s like running a big corporation and a little country at the same time,” she says with a laugh.

Today, wearing an orange blouse and purple skirt in her office at the tribal headquarters, the chief gives no sign of having had a bout with myasthenia gravis after a car accident in 1979; and while her face is puffy from medication following a kidney transplant last year, she radiates health and energy.

Chief Mankiller’s rapid rise to Cherokee power – and her accomplishments in economic development, health care and tribal self-governance – already are legendary in the Native American commu nity. She has helped develop new projects from waterlines to nutrition programs, from rural health clinics to a $9 million vocational training center.

Mankiller freely admits, meanwhile, that her people face a continuing crisis in housing, that too many Cherokee youngsters still drop out of high school, that unemployment remains about 15 per cent and that decades of low self-esteem cannot be reversed overnight.

Wilma Mankiller

“Although we’ve been affected by a lot of historical factors,” she insists, “nobody’s going to pull us out but ourselves.” In 1975, nearly all Cherokee income came from the federal government, but today more than 50 percent of the tribe’s revenues are from its own enterprises, such as an electronics plant.

While leading her tribe to greater self-reliance, Mankiller draws inner strength from the values passed down to her through generations. In many ways, her own life uncannily reflects the historic struggle of the Cherokee Nation itself.

One of eleven children, Mankiller spent her earliest years on “allotted” Oklahoma land amid woodsy hills without electricity or running water. Her full-blood Cherokee father, who married a Dutch-Irish woman, was directly related to the tribal members who had been forcibly removed from their original homeland in the southeastern Appalachian states.

That exodus in the winter of 1838-39 turned to tragedy as some 18,000 Cherokees, suffering from hunger and disease, trudged westward and left about 4000 dead on “the trail where they cried,” later called the Trail of Tears.

The Trail of Tears

“We knew about it from family stories,” Mankiller says, recalling how one of her aunts had a cooking utensil from ancestors on the trail. “Later we learned how our people had left behind their homes and farms, their political and social systems, everything they had known, and how the survivors had come here in disarray — but how, despite all that, they
had begun almost immediately to rebuild.”

When Mankiller was 12, in 1957, her family was again relocated — in this case, by a federal program designed to “urbanize” rural Indians. Sent from the Oklahoma countryside to a poverty-stricken, high-crime neighborhood in San Francisco, they were jammed into “a very rugged” housing project.  Like their ancestors, they were forced to start over.

“My father refused to believe that he had to leave behind his tribal culture to make it in the larger society,” Mankiller recalls, “so he retained a strong sense of identity.  Our family arguments were never personal but about some social or political idea. That stimulating atmosphere, of reading and debating, set the framework for me.”

During the l960s, Wilma Mankiller got married and had two children. She also studied sociology at San Francisco State University. In 1969, when members of the American Indian Movement took over the former prison at Alcatraz to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans, she experienced an awakening that, she says, ultimately
changed the course of her life.

“I’d never heard anyone actually tell the world that we needed somebody to pay attention to our treaty rights,” she explains. “That our people had given up an entire continent, and many lives, in return for basic services like health care and education, but nobody was honoring those agreements. For the first time, people were saying things I felt but
hadn’t known how to articulate. It was very liberating.”

So, in the 1970s, Wilma Mankiller began doing volunteer work among Native Americans in the Bay Area. Learning about tribal governance and its history compelled her to take a fresh look at the Cherokee experience; and what she saw, in terms of broken promises and despair, made her deeply angry.

After the Trail of Tears in 1839, rebuilding by the tribe in Oklahoma proceeded with the creation of a government, courts, newspapers and schools. But this “golden era” ended with the Civil War, followed by the western land rush by settlers who devoured Cherokee holdings. In 1907, Washington gave all remaining Indian territory to the state of Oklahoma
and abolished the Cherokees’ right to self-government. “We fell into a long decline,” Mankiller says, “until, by the 1960s, we had come to feel there was something wrong with being an Indian.”

Not until 1975 did U.S. legislation grant the Cherokees self-determination. As rebuilding began yet again, Mankiller’s own transformation was progressing as well. In 1977, after being divorced, she returned with her children to Oklahoma.

A Woman with a Big Heart

Working in community development, Mankiller saw that the tribe’s need for adequate housing, employment, educa tion and health care was staggering. She helped to procure grants and initiate services; but, she says, she was still angry and bitter over conditions — not yet the calm, introspective woman capable of leading the Cherokee Nation.

Then, in the fall of 1979. an oncoming car collided with her Station wagon. She regained consciousness in the hospital, with her face crushed, ribs broken and legs shattered.

Months of recovery included a series of operations and plastic surgery on her face. Then she developed myasthenia gravis, which sent her nerves out of control.  Surgery on her thymus was followed by steroid therapy. Yet, in December 1980 — just over a year after the accident — she went back to work.

In a profound way, however, Wilma Mankiller was a different person. “It was a life-changing experience,” she says. To sustain herself through recovery, she explains, she drew upon precepts that the Cherokee elders had taught her:

“Have a good mind. No matter what situation you’re in, find something good about it, rather than the negative things. And in dealing with other human beings, find the good in them as well.”

“We are all interdependent. Do things for others — tribe, family, community — rather than just for yourself.”

“Look forward. Turn what has been done into a better path. If you’re a leader, think about the impact of your decisions on seven generations into the future.”

The same woman who had been im mobilized became a bundle of energy relentlessly focused on getting things done. After she helped obtain a grant enabling rural Cherokees to build their own 26- mile waterline, male leaders took notice. By 1983, she was being asked to run for election as deputy chief. Two years after that victory, when Chief Ross Swimmer was named head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Mankiller became the principal chief.

Then, in the 1987 election, she ran for a full four-year term, becoming the first woman elected as Cherokee chief.

“Wilma is a breath of fresh air in In dian leadership,” says Peterson Zah, 58, president of the Navajo Nation and a friend. “She is a visionary who is very aggressive about achieving the goals she has in mind for her people. She truly cares about others.”

As chief, Mankiller works 14-hour days filled with meetings in Tahlequah and frequent twin-engine flights to the state capital in Oklahoma City; and she is often in Washington, D.C., lobbying Congress. Her second husband, Charlie Soap, a full-blood Cherokee, keeps up a similar pace developing community programs. “We can’t wait until the end of the day,” Mankiller says, “to tell each other what went on.”

They had long talks before Wilma de cided to run for a second full term in June. Her recent kidney transplant was successful (the donor was her oldest brother, Donald Mankiller), but she has yearned to do more “hands on” work in rural communities; and there have been enticing offers to teach.

“Committing to another four years was a big decision,” she says. “Basically it came down to the fact that there are so many programs in place that have been started but aren’t yet finished.”

On June 15 — with 83 percent of the vote — Wilma Mankiller was re-elected for four years, beginning Aug. 14.

As she starts her second term, Mankiller sees clearly the depth of problems of her own people, but her vision also includes a national agenda for all Native Americans,whose emerging leadership has heartened her.

One afternoon recently, Mankiller joined other tnbal chiefs in Okiahoma City in a meeting with the governor’s staff about a plan to tax Indian-owned stores.  During a long discussion, Chief Mankiller kept silent; but when she finally spoke up, it was in a way typical of her strong yet quiet leadership.  “I suggest you look at existing tribal contributions to the state,” she said in a soft voice, “and decide not to impose any new taxes on us. This is an opportunity for the state to begin a new day, an era of peace and friendship, with the tribes. Deciding against a tax would send a clear signal to the Indian population with long-term, positive impact.”

Although the decision was left hanging and has yet to be resolved, in a single stroke Mankiller had elevated the meeting’s theme. Then she was off to board a small airplane back to Tahlequah.

Flying over the lush green country side where her people have lived for a century and a half, she could see the Cherokee Nation spread beneath her.

“We can look back over the 500 years since Columbus stumbled onto this continent and see utter devastation among our people,” she says. “But as we approach the 21st century, we are very hopeful. Despite everything, we survive in 1991 as a culturally distinct group. Our tribal institutions are strong. And I think we can be confident that, 500 years from now, someone like Wilma Mankilier will say that our languages and ceremonies from time immemorial still survive.”

As her plane descended, some children paused briefly to glance upward before returning to their lives and to the “new day” that Wilma Mankiller was trying to create for them.

The chief was home.

Fighting for the Rainforest – the Kayapo of Brazil and a Man Who Would Save the World

The following is a report I wrote for PARADE in 1992 on the leader Paiakan of the Kayapo people of the Amazon rain forest.  [Barbara Pyle, one of the world’s foremost environmental leaders in the fight to save the planet, made my trip possible.]  If anyone would like to give us an update, please do!  I’ll get back here sooner than later with what I can learn about subsequent events over the past eighteen years.

April 12, 1992
By Hank Whittemore

Parade Magazine - April 12, 1992 - Paiakan, chief of the Kayapo Indians of Brazil - Photo by Hank Whittemore

Several years ago, a young Kayapo Indian named Paulo Paiakan left his village in the Amazon rain forest of Brazil in order to save it. He ventured to the outside world, warning that if the forest disappears, his people will die. Today he is still standing against the forces of destruction as time runs out. At stake is far more than the fate of a remote Kayapo village. The rain forest is one of the world’s great biological treasures.

If the Kayapo lose the forest that sustains their lives, so will we.

From the City of Belem at the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil, the flight inland proceeds over vast devastation caused by cattle ranchers, gold miners and loggers.  It’s three hours to Rendenção, the farthest outpost on the tropical frontier. Then a tiny plane continues until, mercifully, the scene below is transformed into a canopy of lush green treetops shielding perhaps half the plant and animal species on earth.

Later the pilot dives and banks over a clearing of red dirt bordered by small thatch homes – a signal to the Kayapo people of Aukre. When the plane drops amid tall trees to find a thin landing strip and rolls to a stop, scores of villagers emerge staring in silence. Their bodies and faces are painted with intricate de signs; they wear colorful bracelets and necklaces of beads. Some of the men carry guns or knives or bows – they are warriors, with a heritage of fierce pride that is centuries old.

The visitor is led into the main yard of the village, where Chief Paiakan stands near the Men’s Hut at the center. He is about 37, but the Kayapo do not measure time that way, so his exact age is unknown. Shirtless, wearing shorts and sandals, he is a charismatic figure with flowing black hair and dark eyes that sparkle when he grins.

The first recorded contact with the Kayapo was just over a quarter century ago, in 1965, and  since about 1977 their culture and way of life have been under siege. This year, during the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first contact with the Americas, Paiakan’s village faces irrevocable change. Yet he greets the visitor warmly, speaking in Portuguese:

“Your flight was safe. You are here. Everything is good.”

After nightfall, as sounds of the forest fill the darkness, a Kayapo elder points to the stars and observes that they are distant campfires. Paiakan rests in a hammock under the roof outside his house, speaking softly:

“Since the beginning of the world, we Indians began to love the forest and the land. Because of this, we have learned to preserve it. We are trying to protect our lands, our traditions, our knowledge. We defend to not destroy. If there was no forest, there would be no Indians.”

Rain forests are vital for the rest of us as well. Because they absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen into the atmosphere, rain-forest destruction affects weather patterns and contributes to global warming, the so-called Greenhouse Effect.  Furthermore, half of the world’s biogenetic diversity is within these tropical forests, yet 50 percent of those species are still unknown to the outside world. About one third of the world’s medicines come from tropical plants, but indigenous people like the Kayapo have even more knowledge of plants with curative powers – knowledge that is quickly vanishing along with the forests themselves.

Among the Kayapo, preparation for a new leader begins at birth. Such was the case for Paiakan, who is descended from a long line of chiefs. His father, Chiciri, who lives in Aukre, is a highly regarded peacemaker, and when Paiakan was born, the tribe received a “vision” of his special destiny.

“When I was still a boy,” Paiakan recalls, “I knew that one day I would go out into the world to learn what was coming to us.”

As a teenager, Paiakan got his chance. He was sent to the Kayapo village of Gorotire for missionary school, where he met white men who were building the Trans-Amazonian Highway through the jungle.  Paiakan was recruited to go out ahead of the road’s progress, to approach the previously un-contacted tribes.

When he went back to see what was coming on the road, however, he saw an invasion of ranchers, miners and loggers using fires and chainsaws. As he watched them tearing down vast tracts of forest and polluting the rivers with mercury, he realized that his actual job was to “pacify” other Indians into accepting it.

“I stopped working for the white man,” he says, “and went back to my village. I told my people, ‘They are cutting down the trees with big machines. They are killing the land and spoiling the river. They are great animals bringing great problems for us.’ I told them we must leave, to get away from the threats.”

Paiakan (center) with Sting, who has been a continuing supporter of the Kayapo. Photo by Sue Cunningham

Most of the Kayapo villagers did not believe him, arguing that the forest was
indestructible. So Paiakan formed a splinter group of about 150 men, women and children who agreed to move farther away. For the next two years, advance parties went ahead to plant crops and build homes. In 1983, they traveled four days together, 180 miles downriver, and settled in Aukre.

“Our life is better here,” Paiakan says, “because this place is very rich in fish and game, with good soil. Our real name is Mebengokre – ‘people of the water’s source.’ The river is life for the plants and animals, as well as for the Indian.”

But the new security did not last. During the 1980s, most other Kayapo villages in the Amazon were severely affected by the relentless invasions.  Along with polluted air and water came out breaks of new diseases, requiring modern medicines for treatment. Aukre was still safe, but smoke from burning forests already could be seen and smelled.  Paiakan, realizing that he could not run forever, made a courageous decision. He would leave his people again –this time to go fight for them.

He went to Belem, the state capital where he learned to live, dress and a like a white man. He learned to speak Portuguese, in order to communicate with government officials.  He even taught himself to use a video camera, to document the destruction of the forest – so his people could see it for rainforest themselves and so the Kayapo children would know about it.

Paiakan continued to travel between Aukre and the modern world, at one point becoming a government adviser on indigenous affairs for the Amazon. In 1988, when the rubber tapper Chico Mendes was shot dead by ranchers for organizing grass-roots resistance to deforestation, it was feared that Paiakan himself might be a target.

“Many indigenous leaders have been killed,” says Darrell Posey, an ethno-biologist from Kentucky who has worked with the Indians of Brazil for 15 years, “but publicity surrounding the Mendes murder may have helped to protect Paiakan.”  The Brazilian Pastoral Commission for Land has counted more than 1200 murders of activist peasants, union leaders, priests and lawyers in the past decade.

In 1988, after speaking out against a proposed hydroelectric dam in the rain forest, both Paiakan and Posey were charged with breaking a Brazilian law against “foreigners” criticizing the government. Because Indians are not legally citizens, Paiakan faced three years in prison and expulsion from the country; but when other Kayapo learned of his plight, some 400 leaders emerged from the forest in war paint.  The charges were dropped.

“In the old days,” Paiakan told the press, “my people were great warriors. We were afraid of nothing. We are still not afraid of anything. But now, instead of war clubs, we are using words. And I had to come out, to tell you that by destroying our environment, you’re destroying your own. If I didn’t come out, you wouldn’t know what you’re doing.”

In 1989, Paiakan organized an historic gathering in Altamira, Brazil, that brought together Indians and members of the environmental movement. A major theme of the conference was that protecting natural resources involves using the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples.

“If you want to save the rain forest,” he said, “you have to take into account the people who live there.”

With increasing support, Paiakan acquired a small plane for flying to and from his village. He also made trips to the United States, Europe and Japan, even touring briefly with the rock star Sting [see photo above] to make speeches about the growing urgency of his people’s plight.

But the erosion of Indian culture in the Amazon forest was becoming pervasive. With the influx of goods ranging from medicines to flashlights to radios to refrigerators to hunting gear, village after village was succumbing to internal pressure for money to buy more.  By1990, only Aukre and one other Kayapo community had refused to sell their tree-cutting rights to the loggers, whose tactics included seductive offers of material goods to Indian leaders.

In June that year, racing against time, Paiakan completed negotiations for Aukre to make its own money while preserving the forest. Working with The Body Shop, an organic-cosmetics chain based in Britain, he arranged for villagers to harvest Brazil nuts and then create a natural oil used in hair conditioners.  It would be their first product for export.

Paiakan returned with his triumphant news only to learn that other leaders of Aukre – during the previous month, in his absence – had sold the village’s timber rights for two years.  It was a crushing blow, causing him to exclaim that all his “talking to the world” had been in vain.  He said that if he could not save his people, he would rather not live.

“He went through a period of intense, deep pain,” says Saulo Petian, a Brazilian from Sao Paulo employed by The Body Shop to work with the Kayapo. “He left the village and went far along the river, to be by himself. After about two months, when he got over his sadness and resentment, he came back and told me, ‘Well, I traveled around the world and seemed to
be successful, but the concrete results for the village were very little. These are my people. They have many needs. I can’t go against them now.”

So Paiakan made peace with the other leaders of his village and started over.

“I was like a man running along but who got tired and stopped to rest,” Paiakan recalls. “Then I came back, to continue my fight into the future.”

What began was the simultaneous unfolding of two events, by opposing forces, in Paiakan’s village. One was the beginning of construction by the Indians of a small “factory” with a palm-leaf roof for creation of the hair-conditioning oil. For Paiakan it was a way of showing his people how to earn money from the forest without allowing it to be destroyed.

Meanwhile, loggers came through the forest constructing a road that skirted the edge of the village. By 1991, trucks were arriving from the frontier to carry back loads of freshly cut timber.

The white men left behind the first outbreak of malaria that Aukre had seen, mainly afflicting the elders and children. The only consolation for Paiakan was that the tree-cutters had just a couple of dry months each year when the road was passable.

“Through the Brazil-nut oil project,” Petian says, “Paiakan is showing his people another possibility for satisfying their economic needs. He’s giving them a viable alternative that includes helping to save the forest and their way of life.”

Throughout Brazil, there is similar effort by environmentalists and Indian groups to discourage deforestation by creating markets for nuts, roots, fruits, oils, pigments and essences that can be regularly harvested. Since 1990, about a dozen products using ingredients from the Brazilian Amazon have entered the American market. The nuts, for example, are being used to produce a brittle candy called Rainforest Crunch. The candy is also used by Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc. for one of its ice cream flavors.

“Paiakan is one of the most important leaders looking at alternatives for sustainable development,” says Stephan Schwartz- man, a rain-forest expert at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. He cautions, however, that “nothing in the short term can compete economically” with cash from the sale of tights for logging and gold mining.

Up to 8 percent of the two million square mile Amazon rain forest in Brazil – an area about the size of California – already has been deforested. Once the trees are gone, the topsoil is quickly and irreversibly eroded, so that in just a few years hardly anything can grow, and both cattle-raising and agriculture become nearly impossible.

A hopeful sign is that Brazil’s president, Fernando Collorde Mello, who took office in 1990, has taken some positive steps to protect both the forest and the Indians. (The population of indigenous people in Brazil, once at least 3. million, has fallen this century to 225,000.) Last November, President Collor moved to reserve more than 36,000 square miles of Amazon rain forest as a homeland for an estimated 9000 Yanomami Indians in Brazil. He also approved 71 other reserves covering 42,471 square miles, some 19,000 of
which will be set aside for the Kayapo – about 4000 people in a dozen villages.

It was a major victory for Paiakan, giving him more concrete evidence to show that his efforts outside the village had been worthwhile.

“Paiakan has a vision,” Darrell Posey says. “He’s trying in lots of ways to maintain his traditions—setting up a village school for Kayapo culture, creating a scientific reserve.  At the same time, he’s making the transition to a modem world in which white men are not going to go away.  He knows you either deal with them or you don’t survive.”

These days, Paiakan is working to organize an Earth Parliament of indigenous leaders in Rio tie Janeiro in June. The global parliament will run simultaneously with the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the so- called Earth Summit, which more than 70 percent of the world’s heads of state are expected to attend to ponder the fate of the planet.

[Tonight, the TBS program Network Earth will focus on Paiakan and the Kayapo fight to save their forest.]

“Paiakan has been at the center of incredible change, whether he has wanted to be or not,” Posey says, “and now he’s trying to straddle both the past and the future. I would hope that people in positions of power will see him as someone who can help the world turn back to its roots, to those whose lives depend on working with nature and not against it.”

The Rainforest itself has taken on tremendous symbolic value worldwide, says Thomas Lovejoy, a leading Amazon researcher and assistant secretary for external affairs of the Smithsonian Institution.”  It’s a metaphor for the entire global crisis,” Lovejoy adds. “If we can’t deal with that environment and with the people who live there properly, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to deal with the rest.”

At sunrise in the Kayapo village of Aukre, the red clay of the logging road is wet from rain. The trucks are gone, now, and there is serenity as the tropical heat moves in.  A shaman, or medicine man, is treating Paiakan’s wife for an illness, using plants from the “pharmacy” of the forest.  Some of the men are going off on a hunting trip.  Women and children bathe in the river as butterflies of brilliant colors swirl across a blue sky.

Time seems to stand still, before it races on.

Published in: on January 21, 2010 at 16:03  Comments (8)  
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