My Mankiller Story

Now that I am immersed in native studies, I am finding that everyone has a good Mankiller story, as in a story of working with Wilma Mankiller the former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Wilma became a figure in national native politics following Alcatraz where she became a central organizing figure, along with many other people. Later at her tribe the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, she rose to be the chief, serving two full terms, with her previous term as deputy chief giving her 13 years as a leader of her nation (1983-1995). She was a native activist and social worker for much of her life. and also a literary figure writing several books. Mankiller co-edited A Reader’s Companion to the History of Women in the U.S. (Houghton-Mifflin) and co-authored Mankiller: A Chief and Her People (St. Martin’s Press). Her most recent book, Every Day is a Good Day, was published by Fulcrum Press in the fall of 2004. In 1998 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton. After serving her nation she taught at several universities and did lecture tours. She passed on April 6, 2010.

From 2005 to 2006 Wilma taught a class as the Morse Chair at the University of Oregon’s Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, team-teaching classes on Native American culture and law. I took her class where she discussed national tribal politics and the politics and laws of her Cherokee Nation. Following some of her classes, she would ask to meet with me to discuss the histories of the tribes of Oregon. Great honored, I obliged her and we spend several hours discussing the tribal histories of Oregon. I was gratified that she chose me for this honor.

A good interview with Wilma Mankiller during her appointment to UO is at Willamette Week.

Wilma Mankiller-Ex-Cherokee Chief, and current UO law professor, sounds off about how U.S. society judges tribes.

Her 2005 speech is also online, “Context is Everything: History and Culture in Contemporary Tribal Life”

When her appointment was over I lost contact with her. But for years afterward, she would call me or write me emails and ask how I am doing. I would always ask about her partner Charley Soap, who was also always there with her whenever she taught classes. I was very honored to have been of any interest or help to Wilma Mankiller. I recall that I sent an email of condolences to her family when she was passing and got a very kind response.

What appears to be her final public statement is also online, Wilma Mankiller: A legend ‘In her own time’.

My last interaction with Wilma Mankiller was through Wes Studi, yes the actor. He visited the tribes of western Oregon who were meeting at the Seven River casino in Florence in about 2008 or 2009. Then I was employed at the Grand Ronde tribe and was with Grand Ronde Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle Kennedy because we were planning the events and products to be completed by the western Oregon tribes for Oregon’s Sesquicentennial. Wes made a presentation to our group about a film that the Cherokee nation was making, about the project to build a water canal to a small town in the Cherokee nation, called “The Cherokee Word for Water.” They needed more financing for the movie. I never did hear if any of the tribes contributed. But the film was the brainchild of Wilma Mankiller and it was completed 2013 after she passed and is her final legacy. I now offer that film in my intro to native studies classes at OSU.

Cheryle Kennedy, Wes Studi and David Lewis

What is your Mankiller story?

David G. Lewis, PhD

3 thoughts on “My Mankiller Story

  1. My Mankiller story is sharing in the development of a ceremonial planting of an oak and camas preceding the 2005 graduation ceremony at Willamette University. In a small gather of students, faculty, and staff Wilma Mankiller, Wangari Maathai (Kikuyu, Kenyan), and Cheryle Kennedy (Grand Ronde, Chair) all spoke, shoveled some of the earth, and embraced the ground. Mankiller and Maathai gave addresses later in the day to the entire campus when they were awarded honorary degrees. As Wangari Maathai’s 2004 Nobel Peace prize made abundantly clear – planting and caring for a tree is politically powerful, socially just, and bound to traditional ecological knowledge that merits greater attention. The few photos from that day are among my most prized documentations of the intersection of cultural and natural history and local action in a global mindset. Thanks for your story and the chance to recall this small but impactful anecdote. I am going to see if I can find Mankiller’s remarks in the Willamette archives as I remember being in awe, but I don’t have any specific words from that day. I do have her following quote posted on my office door – “The most fulfilled people are the ones who get up every morning and stand for something larger than themselves. They are the people who care about others, who will extend a helping hand to someone in need or will speak up about an injustice when they see it.”

  2. Hi David! Are you teaching any classes this winter! I am looking for something to do..if just anyone can take your class. Dawn Wheaton

    On Sat, Nov 7, 2020 at 9:21 PM NDNHISTORY RESEARCH wrote:

    > Ethnohistory Research, LLC | David G. Lewis, PhD posted: ” Now that I am > immersed in native studies, I am finding that everyone has a good Mankiller > story, as in a story of working with Wilma Mankiller the former Principal > Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Wilma became a figure in national native > politics following ” >

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