Challenges of a Cherokee Chief

First woman to head tribe battles its poverty, ill health, and lack of jobs and confidence

SITTING behind her desk dressed in a blue suit-jacket, floral blouse, and string of pearls, Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller doesn't fit many people's image of an Indian chief - or a man killer.

Though her name, which comes from an 18th-century warrior, may sound fierce, the woman who presides over the 130,000-member Oklahoma-based tribe is quiet and calm.

But Ms. Mankiller, who five years ago was elected the first woman chief of the second-largest North American tribe, exudes an unflappable self-confidence. `It's hard to rattle me," she says simply.

Her confidence, she adds, has come from her ability to rebuild herself mentally and physically after several daunting physical challenges. She is tenacious about rebuilding her tribe community by community, despite the poverty, low self-esteem, health problems, and unemployment that many Cherokees face.

"A big part of setting the stage for having people take control of their own lives and solve their own problems is getting people to believe they can," she says. "Our folks are a long way away from uniformly believing that, after a couple hundred years of being acculturated to think that other people have the best ideas for us.... I always try to emphasize that we can do anything if we set our minds to it."

Mankiller is a hands-on leader who says her favorite work is helping people in communities develop projects to help themselves. Official duties as chief, however, keep her from spending as much time at the grass-roots level as she would like.

On any typical 12-hour workday, Mankiller may hop on a plane to meet with congressional leaders in Washington, speak with a member of the tribal council, or advise someone who is unhappy with the tribe's social services.

Her job, she says, is like "being president of a tiny country, a CEO, and a social worker."

Mankiller says the trials she has had to face in her life helped prepare her for the multi-faceted tasks of this office.

Born 46 years ago in Tahlequah, the Cherokee capital in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma, Mankiller was one of 11 children. Her family experienced rural poverty and then urban poverty when they moved to San Francisco as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' resettlement program. New sense of activism

After her first marriage ended in divorce, she moved back to Oklahoma with her two daughters and started working at the Cherokee Nation. But she brought back to her tribe a new sense of activism, which started when she began participating in Indian-rights causes in California.

In Tahlequah, she proposed ideas of community empowerment to then-Chief Ross Swimmer. The success of a project in Bell, where she helped a rural community build a 16-mile water line, propelled her into the tribal limelight. She was elected deputy chief in 1983; in 1985 she succeeded Swimmer when he resigned. She was elected chief two years later.

Friends say her ability to lead despite a number of physical problems is remarkable. A car accident in 1979 kept her in a wheelchair or on crutches for a year; not long after that, she had surgery for a nerve disorder. Two years ago she underwent a kidney transplant.

Native American leaders view her "with great admiration, maybe sometimes with envy that she can do what she does," says LaDonna Harris, president of Americans for Indian Opportunity, who has known Mankiller for about 30 years.

The hills are tranquil and the valleys green in northeastern Oklahoma, where the Cherokees were settled in 1839. Some 18,000 died on the "Trail of Tears" - the forced march here from their homeland in the southeastern United States. Mankiller is optimistic at the direction her tribe is taking today. "I think the most positive thing happening is that people are beginning to understand that they can live and work in a very modern, fast-moving society ... but also celebrate who they are as Cherokees and mai ntain a sense of self," she says.

Still, the problems that remain sometimes frustrate her to the point of admitting that "Some days I feel like everything's falling apart." Health problems and health care are worse than in the general population; educational attainment for Cherokee youths is low; and alcoholism is prevalent.

Unemployment, though not as high as on some reservations, is still in double digits. Mankiller says the Cherokees, who don't live on a reservation, are not as isolated and have more industries than most tribes. The tribe also operates a small bingo operation. Forty-eight percent of its nearly $67 million income comes from the government.

As a woman, Mankiller believes she brings a sense of collaboration to her leadership position. "I'm more of a team builder," she says. "My unscientific observations are that men make unilateral decisions and charge ahead.... There are exceptions to that, but women tend to ... do things in a more consultive and collaborative way."

Although she has earned the respect - and, eventually, the votes - of many men, which helped to place her in the chief's seat, Mankiller says she was unprepared for the sexism she encountered when she ran for deputy chief in 1983. "It's the first time it ever happened at that level in my life. It was very interesting and very hurtful. I learned to just ignore it," says Mankiller, who believes bias against women was something the white man brought to Indian culture. Views carry weight

She is encouraged now by the number of women in her tribe, as well as in other tribes, who are taking on more leadership roles. (See adjoining story.)

"She's been one of the leaders both of the women chiefs and chiefs nationally, because she's taken a real interest in national issues," says Michael Anderson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. "She's articulate, she's visionary.... Her views and opinions carry a lot of weight in Indian country."

Mankiller spends her free moments at her home on Mankiller Flats, a 160-acre tract of land, with her husband Charlie Soap.

As director of the Christian Children's Fund for northeastern Oklahoma, Mr. Soap works with youths and in community development. "She's a brilliant woman," he says. "She taught me a lot. I couldn't talk to people. She kept pushing me in front of TVs. I'd get so mad at her," he says, laughing.

Asked if the surname "Mankiller" draws a lot of questions, she deadpans with a twinkle in her eye: "Sometimes. Sometimes I tell people it's a nickname and I earned it."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Challenges of a Cherokee Chief
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today