Perspectives on Indian Issues

The lives of two leaders illumine the native-American experience

WILMA MANKILLER, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and United States Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D) of Colorado, share at least two things in common: Both are Indians who came from humble beginnings and both rose above some daunting odds to become revered leaders among native Americans and the US population in general.

Both have also written books about their lives. In different ways, these books are an inspirational read for anyone.

In ``Mankiller: A Chief and Her People,'' the Cherokee leader teamed up with writer Michael Wallis to tell a first-person account of her life and the history of the Cherokees. Ms. Mankiller's story begins more than 400 years ago when the first Europeans set foot in America. At that time, the Cherokees lived in the southeastern US. Their complex culture eroded during the next three centuries as Europeans emigrated to the North American continent, often killing, stealing, cheating, and wreaking havoc on them and other native peoples. In 1838, the federal government ordered the Cherokees to resettle on land in Oklahoma. Their journey is known as the Trail of Tears, because thousands perished from cold and lack of food during the forced march.

Mankiller was born in Oklahoma to an Irish mother and Cherokee father whose ancestors survived the Trail of Tears. She was one of 11 children, and though extremely poor, the family was happy. In 1945, when she was 10, she experienced a modern-day version of removal under the US government's policy of relocating Indians to urban areas.

The Mankillers moved to a seedy section of San Francisco - a foreign world of sirens, slums, and neon lights. Here Mankiller went to school, married, and had two children. But the Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island galvanized her to become active in native American civil rights.

When she moved back to Oklahoma in the early 1970s, she took a position with the Cherokee Nation. Her organizing skills, enthusiasm, and hard work caught the attention of then Principal Chief Ross Swimmer, who asked her to run as his deputy chief in 1983. In 1987, she ran for and won the top spot when Chief Swimmer stepped down. She has accomplished all this despite several severe physical difficulties.

Today, with Mankiller at the helm, the Cherokees continue to try to reestablish some of the balance their tribe lost centuries ago. That includes restoring the status of women. ``One of the new values Europeans brought to the Cherokees was a lack of balance and harmony between men and women. It was what we today call sexism. This was not a Cherokee concept,'' writes Mankiller, who experienced death threats and blatant sexism when she ran for chief.

Today, she writes, ``We ... are returning the balance to the role of women in our tribe. Prior to my becoming chief, young Cherokee girls never thought they might be able to grow up and become chief themselves. That has definitely changed.''

``Mankiller'' is engaging and easy to read. It is peppered with historical events and quotations from past presidents, Indians, and many others about the policies regarding indigenous peoples and their plight. It provides an account of history most school textbooks do not cover.

In ``Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior,'' Herman J. Viola tells the life story of the colorful, outspoken senator from Colorado, who is part Cheyenne. Campbell's reason for wanting the book written was to give Indian and inner-city kids a suitable role model. ``I started at the bottom and look where I am today,'' he says. ``I want every kid in America to know that this great country will give them the opportunity to make something of themselves, if they are willing to work for it.''

Campbell is the son of an alcoholic father who kept his Cheyenne heritage a secret and a Portuguese mother whose tuberculosis kept her in and out of sanatoriums. Despite a troubled childhood, he channeled his energy into learning judo. He won a gold medal at the Pan American Games in 1963 and became the captain of the first US Olympic Judo Team in 1964.

Campbell operates on the premise that he can accomplish anything. He has used that tenacity and self-confidence to successfully tackle other hobbies. He is known as one of the country's most creative designers of native-American jewelry; he became a breeder of champion quarter horses; and he entered politics with no previous experience.

Campbell first started appreciating his native-American heritage in the 1960s. His search for his roots led him to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana, where he found descendants of relatives who had fought in the Battle of Little Big Horn. These relatives welcomed him into the family, and Campbell now participates in their tribal traditions.

Although the story is not told in Campbell's words, quotes from him, family, friends, and others give the reader a sense of his feisty, independent, candid style.

In ``Mankiller'' and ``Ben Nighthorse Campbell,'' prominent native Americans tell their side of the story and their people's account of historical events. It's a perspective that Americans need to see more often to understand their own history.

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