Considering the Full Life of Wilma MankillerRoundup
tags: slavery, Native American history, Cherokee Freedmen, Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller
Alaina E. Roberts is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of I've Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land.
On June 6, the United States Mint will release a limited number of quarters commemorating Wilma Mankiller, part of its American Woman Quarters program, which was created to celebrate the “accomplishments and contributions made by women to the development and history of our country.” Mankiller, the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, is one of the most well-known and widely respected Native American figures in the country.
But, like all human beings, she’s complicated: She was also an architect of the mass disenrollment of the Black members of her tribe (also known as “Freedmen”) — a position she regretted later in life, and an injustice that has only just been fully remedied under the current Cherokee principal chief, Chuck Hoskin, Jr.
Mankiller's election in 1983 will, and should, be remembered as the first in which a woman was elected deputy chief. It was also the first election since 1866 — when the Cherokee Nation, in a treaty with the United States, acknowledged its former slaves as citizens — in which Black Cherokees were not allowed to vote. Two watershed events, one of them an uplifting sign of progress and a return to Cherokee ideals of matrilineal power, and the other, a reversal of century-old tribal policy that left a lingering “shadow” on the nation, as Mankiller herself later put it in her autobiography.
As we celebrate the release of this quarter and honor Mankiller herself, what can we learn from her initial decision about Cherokee Freedmen, her later change of heart, and her life as a whole?
Mankiller was born on Nov. 18, 1945, in the Cherokee Nation capital of Tahlequah, to a Cherokee father and a white mother. Her early childhood was spent in Adair County, where her family grew some of their own food but contended with extreme poverty. When the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 pushed Native people to move to urban areas, promising them assistance finding jobs and homes, Mankiller’s family was one of the thousands who thought the risk might prove worthwhile. They moved hundreds of miles away, ultimately settling in San Francisco, where their maternal relatives lived.
The move was hard on Mankiller and her siblings, who found it difficult to make friends and adjust to school. Mankiller found some solace in local pan-Indian community organizations, and as time went by, she absorbed the activist atmosphere of the Bay Area and became active in the American Indian Movement. She also met and married her first husband, Ecuadorian Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi.
Mankiller didn’t easily fall into her life’s work. Rather, she followed a meandering path through legal work with California tribes and Native youth in Oakland, as well as community development in various Cherokee Nation positions. Along the way, she suffered a devastating car crash and a lengthy recovery. All these experiences diversified her skill set and eventually brought her into politics.
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