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.