Economist: Wilma Mankiller helped the Cherokee people
"All through her life, white people tried to help Wilma Mankiller. As she walked to school, two miles down the hilly, narrow lanes of north-eastern Oklahoma, women in big cars would stop and offer her a ride. She didn’t want one. The same women would appear sometimes at the wood-frame house, where her family of 11 lived in three rooms, burning coal-oil and hauling water from the spring, and offer them second-hand clothes. She would run away. If they caught her, they would pat her on her black-haired, Indian head. “Bless your little heart,” they murmured.

In 1956, when she was ten, white people suggested her family should move from their farm at Mankiller Flats to San Francisco. The government, having forced her ancestors in 1838 along the Trail of Tears from eastern Tennessee to Indian Territory, now promised them a better life even farther west. They caught the passenger train from Stilwell; she wept Cherokee tears all the way to California. No one had forced them out this time. But they ended up in a drab, violent housing project where her father found back-breaking work in a rope-factory and she was mocked at school for her stupid name. She knew it meant “guardian of the settlement”; but that all seemed far away and irrelevant now.

Many years later, when she was principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, a white woman offered money for college scholarships for Indians. She said she wanted to “give pride back” to them. Ms Mankiller had never heard such arrogance. Yes, her tribe needed schools, clinics, day care, Head Start programmes, and all these she was busy procuring for them. But it did not need the patronising charity of white people. Under Ms Mankiller, the Cherokee were learning to rely on themselves again.

It had taken time. Over the years the tribe had been absorbed until almost everything was lost. In 1907 the tribal lands in Oklahoma had been broken up into allotments, one of which was given to Ms Mankiller’s grandfather at Mankiller Flats; and nothing did more damage to the tribe, she believed, than that loss of commonalty and spiritual, as well as physical, interdependence. Her family had tried to preserve it, bartering with and working for other people. But the Cherokee could not easily find their sense of oneness again."

Get the Story:
Wilma Mankiller (The Economist 4/22)

Relevant Documents:
House Resolution 1237 | CNO Press Release | White House Statement | DOI Statement

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