Mankiller takes on gender in society
Facebook Twitter Email
FRIDAY, MARCH 22, 2002

Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to be elected chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, charmed a Washington, D.C., crowd on Thursday night with her views on tribal culture, gender roles and Indian mascots.

Speaking to students, educators and onlookers at Georgetown University, Mankiller was muted in voice but not in message. Having recently recovered from health problems, she occasionally has trouble hearing but the reverse wasn't the case of her audience.

The same couldn't be said when she decided to run for office of her tribe in the early 1980s, Mankiller said. Spurred into running due to deplorable housing conditions and high unemployment among Cherokees, she encountered repeated and "painful" questions about her gender.

"The biggest issue people had with me was simply being female," she said. "They had forgotten their history."

According to Mankiller, traditional Cherokee culture placed a high value on the role of women, consulting them on important decisions. Due to systematic attempts by the federal government to exterminate, terminate, remove and assimilate her tribe, she said those practices were beaten out.

But Native women now are making gains, just like women elsewhere, she said. She cited advances in technology, new laws, and the rejection of societal restrictions as key in the battle.

"I made my own definition of what is means to be a woman," Mankiller said.

Education also plays a major role, Mankiller told the crowd. After September 11, she became surprised how little people knew about the Islamic faith and Muslim people.

The same goes for knowledge of Native cultures and tribes, she added. "We've lived together for more than 300 years and yet people know so little of us," she said.

That perhaps has contributed to the use of Indians as mascots, she said. "Good good, I think it's time for them to go," she said to loud applause.

"It's really kind of silly," she continued. "The caricatures are very offensive."

Citing a "cultural renaissance" among the Cherokee Nation, she urged two students with Cherokee heritage to return to their people. "Go home," she said, recalling her experience moving back to Oklahoma after her family was moved to San Francisco under the federal government's "promise" of a better life.

Growing up the city in the 1960s was a unique experience, Mankiller recounted. But she went home "and never looked back," she said.

"You can't really learn [culture] by reading books," she told the students.

These days, Mankiller is far removed from tribal politics, although she said she was still concerned about water rights in the state of Oklahoma. She has spent recent years researching a book about Native women and traveling to meet with women in communities all over the world.

But one goal remains, she concluded. When Cherokee treaties were being negotiated, women were always brought along but the male leaders never saw the same of the United States government, she said.

"Where are your women?" she said they would ask.

"We have to continue to ask the question," she said, "until we get the truthful answer that 'Women are everywhere.'"

Relevant Links:
The Cherokee Nation -
Wilma Mankiller, tribute site -
Wilma Mankiller, Info -