Mankiller: A Chief and Her People
(1993) is an autobiography by Wilma Pearl Mankiller, the first woman ever to be Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. The book covers Mankiller's ascent from humble beginnings on her federal allotment in Oklahoma to her career as a social worker, political activist, and Cherokee leader.
Born in 1945 at the Hastings Indian Hospital in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Mankiller was an ancestor of Cherokees who survived the forced expulsion from Tennessee in the 1830s and subsequent brutality of the Trail of Tears. Her father, Charley Mankiller, was a full-blooded Cherokee. Growing up, the family lived in extreme poverty with no electricity or plumbing, and surviving on vegetables they grew themselves in a small garden. By 1955 and amid a severe drought, the family found it more difficult than ever to feed Wilma and her five siblings. The family relocated to San Francisco as part of a program through of Bureau of Indian Affairs to assist Native American families who assimilate into urban areas. Unfortunately, the Bureau denied Charley a loan. Moreover, the promise of lodging in San Francisco fell through, forcing the family to take shelter in a dilapidated hotel in the Tenderloin District.
The family survived in utter squalor for a few weeks before Charley and his brother Don found work and saved enough money to move to a marginally better apartment in Potrero Hill. Though the family still struggled financially, they achieved enough stability to feed their children and send them to school. What was most difficult for Mankiller, however, was the loss of her tribal identity. She hated being made fun of at school for her last name, and she felt enormously isolated after being separated from the kind of people she had grown up with on the allotment in Oklahoma. Mankiller regularly ran away from home to stay at her grandmother's farm in Riverbank, where the stresses of an urbanized, Americanized existence felt far away. After a number of runaway instances, her parents finally let her stay in Riverbank for a year to decompress.
While the year away helped Mankiller's well-being to a significant degree, she found life to be as difficult as ever when she returned to the city. Her family had settled in Hunter's Point, which, at that point, was infested with drugs and gang activity. After Mankiller finished high school, she began raising a family with her new husband, Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi, an Ecuadorian man named. Living in the Mission District, Mankiller gave birth to two daughters, Felicia and Gina, while Hugo worked for Pan American Airlines and attended San Francisco State University. While she enjoyed the stability of domestic life, Mankiller grew restless and enrolled in classes at a junior college.
A year later, Mankiller became involved with the American Indian Movement, a civil rights and anti-war activist group with a major chapter in San Francisco. She was heavily involved in the nineteenth-month occupation of Alcatraz Island organized by the Red Power social movement, until Charley fell ill with kidney disease, making it difficult for Mankiller to spend much time on activism. Charley died in 1971.
After Charley's death, Mankiller enrolled at San Francisco State where she studied social welfare with the aim of becoming a social worker. She would go on to establish the East Oakland Native American Youth Center, at which she also served as the director. When Mankiller's mother relocated to Oklahoma, Mankiller followed with her with daughters. Unfortunately, outside of an urban environment, it was difficult to find work as a social worker. She made ends meet by writing grants and working with community development projects. Over time, she attracted the attention of Ross Swimmer, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, who appointed Mankiller to head up a new Community Development Department of the Cherokee Nation that Mankiller had proposed.
In 1983, Swimmer selected Mankiller to be his running mate in his upcoming reelection for Principal Chief. It was an ugly campaign, in which opponents subjected Mankiller to sexism, the severity of which surprised her. In the end, Swimmer narrowly won reelection, making Mankiller the Deputy Chief. Before the end of his term, Swimmer resigned to join the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, making Mankiller the first-ever female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.Mankiller: A Chief and Her People
is an incredibly inspiring story of how a woman reconnected with her community and made history in the process.