Wilma Mankiller, Northern Arizona University Commencement Speech, 1992

Wilma Mankiller

Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation (1985–95)

Wilma Mankiller, the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, was born in 1945 into a large family. She was descended on her father’s side from Georgia Cherokees evicted from their land in the 1830s and forced to march to Oklahoma on Andrew Jackson’s ‘Trail of Tears’. In her twenties, she became an activist during the occupation of Alcatraz, an island off the coast of San Francisco. Later, Mankiller returned to Oklahoma and led the Bell water project where she inspired the Bell community to build nearly twenty miles of waterline with their volunteer labour. That project, which is the subject of the award winning film, Cherokee Word for Water, led to Mankiller being elected deputy chief in 1983. In 1985 she became the principal chief. During her rise to leader, she was surprised to confront a deep-seated sexism within her community; she was threatened and clashed often with the men on her tribal council. By the time of her death in 2010, however, she had served three terms as principal chief. She oversaw the growth of the nation from about 68,000 members to 170,000, championing causes including tribal education and women’s rights. She met Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and forged a close friendship with Gloria Steinem (see here).

In a commencement speech delivered at Northern Arizona University in 1992, Mankiller described, with amusement, being asked by the staff at her hotel how she would like to be addressed, given that her credit card read ‘Wilma Mankiller, Principal Chief’, and also how she was once asked by a young man if he should call her ‘Chiefette’, because of her gender. The young man then asked about her last name. (The name ‘Mankiller’ comes from the Cherokee word for ‘“keeper of the village” – like the equivalent of a general or someone who watched over a village’.) ‘But that’s not what I told this young man,’ Mankiller jokes with the audience, ‘I told him it was a nickname and I had earned it.’

Northern Arizona University Commencement Speech 1992

In American society it is always, ‘They’re going to solve that problem.’ I don’t know who ‘they’ are. I always tell our own people that I don’t know who they are referring to. To me the only people who are going to solve our problems are ourselves – people like you and me. We have to personally take charge and solve our problems….

There still exists in this country many negative stereotypes about black people, Latin people, and Asian people. God knows there are terrible stereotypes about Native Americans; these have to be overcome before we can move forward.

Sometimes I sit down with a diverse group of people in Oklahoma to work on some problem that we all have in common; it is almost like sitting down with people who have some kind of veil over their face or something. We all look at each other through this veil that causes us to see each other through these stereotypes. I think we need to lift back the veil and deal with each other on a more human level in order to continue to progress.

The minority population in this country is dramatically increasing, and that is a fact. If we continue to have this increase in minority population, we need to find ways of dealing with each other and working with each other in much better ways because it affects everybody. I do not think that we can say that what happens in Detroit does not somehow affect all America, because it does. I would urge all of you who are here today, both graduates and families, to examine the extent to which we hold those stereotypes about one another. And finally, I would hope my being here and spending just a couple of minutes with you today would help you to eliminate any stereotypes you might have about what a chief looks like.