Women’s History Month: Wilma Mankiller’s Memoir

Wilma Mankiller tells her own story and that of the Cherokee Nation in her memoir.

The history of Native American peoples in our nation contains horrific brutality, blood-soaked land, broken treaties, forced displacement and inspiring resilience.

Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, embodies all of these. Mankiller, her memoir, tells the story of her extraordinary rise to tribal power and her people’s tortured yet ultimately hopeful history.

The book’s introduction explains that each of the book’s 13 chapters begins with a Cherokee tale that demonstrates the culture’s belief in the unity of all living things, the central importance of animals, and the power of story.  From these beginnings, Mankiller weaves her own experiences and that of the Cherokee Nation as a whole.

They both contain heavy doses of pain.

Mankiller writes about her elders’ being forced to attend the Indian school established in the late nineteenth century to “kill the Indian and save the man.”  She describes her family’s forced relocation to California from Oklahoma in the 1950s after telling about the government’s earlier “Trail of Tears” removal of the nation from the Southeastern United States to Oklahoma under the direction of then-President Andrew Jackson.

She also writes in detail about the many treaties, nearly all of which were disregarded, that have been a defining part of U.S. Government-Indian relations.

Despite this heavy content, Mankiller is not a depressing tale of woe.  She talks at length about her political coming of age during the 1969 seizure of Alcatraz, her subsequent activism in the community, her return to her native Oklahoma and her steady, if not meteoric rise, through the tribal leadership ranks.

Throughout the work Mankiller makes it abundantly clear that her primary goal is to serve her people, and that, indeed, her destiny is inextricably connected to that of the Nation as a whole.  She quotes admiringly the fabled Cherokee leader John Ross, who said at the end of his life that he did not regret any action he had taken on behalf of the tribe. 

If anything, Mankiller is so modest that one thinks she could have shared more about what she did to lead others to recognize and want to promote her to increasingly lofty leadership positions.

She also writes about her personal struggles in her first marriage that ended in divorce, in her ongoing bouts with kidney disease-her brother donated a kidney to her so that she could live-and her near-fatal auto accident. Mankiller had had an ominous premonition shortly before the accident, but was not able to avoid the devastating crash that took the life of one of her friends in the other car.

The book ends in the early 90s after Mankiller had been re-elected as chief, and includes a helpful timeline and list of suggested readings to advance one’s knowledge further.  The frequent quotes she drops in throughout the book’s chapters at times can impede the reading flow, but not so much that you want to stop reading this accessible and informative tale of a remarkable woman.


8 responses to “Women’s History Month: Wilma Mankiller’s Memoir

  1. Pingback: Wilma Mankiller - MeMiM

  2. Pingback: RIP, Wilma Mankiller « Jeff Kelly Lowenstein’s Blog

  3. Just came upon your blog – fine review, good information. I’m drafting a small tribute to Mankiller on my personal blog and hope you don’t mind if I link to it. Your blog looks full of other interesting things to follow up on too – thanks.

  4. Thank you for this site. Wilma Mankiller’s story is an inspiration to anyone who values other people. My history book, “The Matheson Cove – In the Shadow of the Devil’s Post Office” deals with my great grandmother WHO DID NOT WALK TO OKLAHOMA on the Trail of Tears! I would like very much to get to correspond with Wilma Mankiller. I was born in 1938, and am ONE OF ELEVEN CHILDREN AS IS WILMA! I feel being born ONE HUNDRED years after my Grandmother Minnie Little gives me a bond with her. She and her family hid out in a cave in North Georgia. Grandmother Minnie is my inspiration and an everlasting light through all of life’s rough times!
    December 31,2010

    Eva M. Wike, Ph.D.
    109 Oklahoma Avenue
    Oak Ridge, TN 37830

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Dear Dr. Wike,

      Thanks very much for your comment. I look forward to reading your book. Unfortunately, Chief Mankiller died earlier this year. Good luck with your projects.


  5. Ran into your website through Facebook! I enjoyed reading the quote from Chief Wilma Mankiller! I couldn’t help but laugh in knowing my own heritage from my Great Grandmother’s side is through the Porache Creek Indians in Alabama and Florida. Having been adopted I didn’t know this side of the family until 1996 and had the opportunity to meet my grandmother and hear her speak of her mother whose first name was Minerva and everyone called her Minnie! I am proud to say I was named after her and am still seeking knowledge regarding the Trails, hiding in cornfields, and intermarrying with Free Slaves! This is definitely a history not spoken of. Thanking you posting and I’ll be frequently referring to your site! Peace out, Minerva

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks very much, Minerva, for your comment. What a cool story!

      I look forward to continuing the conversation.


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