Wilma Mankiller gave the keynote address at the Grandmothers' first conference. She became an important part of the dialogue on many issues.
Wilma Mankiller is the first woman to be elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. But getting there wasn't easy ...
Wilma grew up dirt poor on her family's land near Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Their home had no electricity, so they used coal oil for light. Dinner was often squirrel or other small game
At the time, the Cherokee were considered "wards" of the state. When Wilma was 11, her family moved to San Francisco in part of a government relocation program to help people find new jobs in industry. However, the move weakened family ties and connections to their tribe. While Wilma had a difficult adjustment, the city's large and diverse population opened her eyes to new worlds.
Wilma eventually married and had children, but she was not interested in academics or college. Then, in 1969, her activism was awakened when Native students occupied Alcatraz Island to raise awareness of issues affecting their tribes. By 1970, the U.S. had decided to allow tribes to directly elect their own leaders.
The experience changed Wilma; it also affected her marriage. After she and her husband divorced, Wilma and her children returned to Oklahoma. “I had no job, very little money, no car, had no idea what I was going to do, but knew it was time to go home,” she said.
When Wilma arrived home, she began helping the Cherokee Nation and its people receive grants. She also helped launch important programs for her people. “I think the most important issue ... is to begin to trust our own thinking again and believe in ourselves enough to think that we can articulate our own vision of the future and then work to make sure that that vision becomes a reality,” Wilma says.
Wilma soon enrolled at the nearby University of Arkansas. One night while driving home from school, she was involved in a car accident. The other driver -- one of Wilma's best friends -- was killed. Wilma barely survived. It took 17 operations to save her right leg. Her long recovery proved to be a time of deep spiritual awakening.
Then, in 1980, Wilma was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a disease that affects one's muscles. But Wilma continued serving her people and developed the Bell Project to help communities revitalize themselves without waiting for outside assistance. She soon became nationally known for her efforts.
After Wilma married long time friend Charlie Soap, she had another health scare -- kidney failure. Her brother donated his kidney and she survived.
In 1987, Wilma decided to run for chief of the Cherokee Nation. She believed her many community projects gave her the abilities to lead her people. But Wilma's campaign met violent opposition. Her tires were slashed, and she received many death threats. "I remember people saying that I wasn't — quote, unquote — chief material," Wilma remembered one man saying. "If we elect a woman we'll be the laughing stock of all tribes."
When Wilma finally prevailed, her historic win brought a great deal of public attention for the Cherokee Nation. It helped revitalize the entire tribe. "Every single person has leadership ability," Wilma said. "Some step up and take them. Some don't. My answer was to step up and lead."
For Wilma, spirituality is the key to her public and private life. Her understanding of how we are all connected and her ancient tribal teachings are what sustains her and her passion to help her people. This understanding has made her an important spiritual force in the United States.
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