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Dance Along the Edge of the Roof: Wilma Mankiller

Updated on March 25, 2016

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller
Wilma Mankiller | Source

Hail to the Chief

Dance Along the Edge of the Roof: Wilma Mankiller

No plumbing, no electricity. That’s how Wilma Mankiller spent the first ten years of her life on her family’s farm in Oklahoma. Born in November 18, 1945 of Cherokee and Irish-Dutch parents, she and her ten brothers and sisters grew up in near poverty, sometimes walking barefoot over three miles to get to school, wearing clothes sewn out of old flour sacks, hauling water to the house from a natural spring and bartering with neighbors for goods. It might not seem like such a nice life, but Wilma didn’t mind much. So long as she had the nearby woods to roam around in, she was happy.

Then came that fateful day when the United States government exercised eminent domain and relocated dozens of Native Americans—including Wilma and her family—to the city. Wilma and her family were placed in San Francisco, and for a girl who had never seen a TV, neon lights, elevators or indoor toilets before, the city must have seemed like an alien world. The transition from their farm to the city was difficult for Wilma, who often saw signs in local restaurants that declared, “No Dogs, No Indians.” She was picked on by the other non-Native American children, once punching a bullying boy so hard that he collapsed. Wilma hated the city so much that she ran away from home at least five times. It was almost a miracle that she managed to graduate from high school at all. Looking back on it, Wilma said, “I experienced my own Trail of Tears when I was a young girl. No one pointed a gun at me or at members of my family. No show of force was used. It was not necessary. Nevertheless, the United States government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was again trying to settle the 'Indian problem' by removal. I learned through this ordeal about the fear and anguish that occur when you give up your home, your community, and everything you have ever known to move far away to a strange place. I cried for days, not unlike the children who had stumbled down the Trail of Tears so many years before. I wept tears that came from deep within the Cherokee part of me. They were tears from my history, from my tribe's past. They were Cherokee tears.”

Desperate to get out, Wilma married when she was seventeen and had two daughters, Gina and Felicia. She enrolled in college, earning a bachelor’s degree in social sciences for social sciences from Flaming Rainbow University in Oklahoma.

Wilma was very active with San Francisco’s Indian Center, and in 1960 participated in the Occupation of Alcatraz, where 400 hundred Native Americans staged a protest against the U.S. government’s unfair treatment of native peoples for hundreds of years. This inspired her to return home to Oklahoma and work with the Cherokee Indian Nation. She began at an entry level position, then ran for deputy chief and won in 1983.

Wilma worked her way up in the ranks, and in 1987 she was the first woman elected to be principle chief of the Cherokee nation, which had a population of 140,000 and an annual budget of $75 million. She improved relations with the U.S. government, improved infrastructure in Native American communities, promoted Native American-owned businesses, revitalized Sequoyah High School, and fought stereotyping of Native Americans in the media. “If I see one more book with a native person standing on top of a hill with hands towards the sky, I think I’m going to throw up,” she said.

Even though Wilma worked hard for her tribe, there were still people who resented having a female chief. They slashed her car tires, sent her death threats and said awful things. “I've run into more discrimination as a woman than as an Indian,” she said. A feminist, Wilma was friends renowned feminist Gloria Steinem and encouraged the young women of her tribe to become more active in tribe politics and to become more assertive, something Wilma demonstrated at tribe meetings. One man regularly interrupted Wilma when she spoke at tribe meetings, never giving her a chance to speak freely. At the following meeting, Wilma arranged to have full control of the microphones. Every time the man stood up to speak into the microphone, Wilma calmly shut it off, never giving him a chance to speak. In the end, Wilma decided that leadership had little to do with gender, so she carried on despite the opposition, saying “I believe in the old Cherokee injunction to ‘be of good mind.’ Today it’s called positive thinking.”

Her optimistic lookout was almost legendary, and she encouraged young people to enter public service, take risks and, “dance along the edge of the roof.” Her second husband, the renowned powwow dancer Charlie Soap, has stated that he puts Wilma at the top of his heroes list, and Ms. Magazine made Wilma “Woman of the Year ’87.”

Throughout her chieftainship, Wilma battled an array of health problems, and when she needed a kidney transplant no fewer than eight relatives offered theirs. Finally, her health concerns were too much and Wilma Mankiller stepped down as chief. Sadly, Wilma passed away on April 6, 2010, leaving behind a strong and proud Cherokee nation.

Wilma Mankiller works referenced:

The Book of Women’s Firsts, by Phyllis J. Read and Bernard L. Witlieb

Lives of Extraordinary Women, by Kathleen Krull

Wilma Mankiller and Gloria Steinem,

Wilma Mankilleer

Occupation of Alcatraz

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller quotes

Flag of the Cherokee Nation

Wilma Mankiller


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