When Wilma Mankiller says leadership requires being positive, she speaks what she has lived. The first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Mankiller spoke March 19 on the leadership qualities of women.
"Life hands us all sorts of situations, but in all we can find something positive," she says.
These are the words of one who has known struggle. Mankiller has twice had cancer and has undergone two kidney transplants. Diabetes has left her unable to hear. A car crash crushed part of her face.
"In a way, all of those things, I think, contributed to making me a good person," she says. "And instead of focusing on the things I can't do, I think, 'What have I learned from this situation?' Even in the most critical situation you need to stay positive."
Anyone who knows the history of the Cherokee people knows of the Trail of Tears, when U.S. troops forcibly removed the Cherokee from their homes in North Carolina and marched them to Oklahoma, decimating the tribe. Yet there, too, Mankiller says, positive outcomes are clear.
"By the time the removal was over, in April of 1839, about 4,000 people, about one-fourth of our entire tribe, were dead," she says. "What's remarkable about our people is that almost immediately after we arrived on Indian territory, with many people dead, the tribe literally divided, our political systems and our cultural system, social system and spiritual strength, most of that having been disrupted from this removal we began, in spite of that, almost immediately, to build our community and a nation again. So that by the 1840s, we had built our own schools and interestingly began some schools dedicated to the education of women, which was a radical idea considering the time in history.
"We also built some of the oldest buildings, beautiful government buildings which are now the oldest buildings in what is now Oklahoma. It was almost a Cherokee Renaissance, in a way."
Mankiller spoke at Plum Street Temple at the 2001 National Speaker Forum, hosted by the Woman's Club of Greater Cincinnati. In a lecture called "Dancing on the Edge of the Roof: The Requirements of Leadership," Mankiller talked about overcoming stereotypes of Native American women and other obstacles she overcame on her way to becoming leader of the Cherokee Nation.
Mankiller was one of 11 children in her family, living on her grandfather's 160 acres of allotted land in Oklahoma. The family moved when she was 11 years old.
"What I learned in the first 10 years of my life in a rural, isolated community in the Northern Pacific, without roads nearby, is that even though people were bitterly poor, people survived by being interdependent," Mankiller says. "People helped each other, trading crops, eggs and milk. The other thing I learned is that our people are very positive people. They could talk about the history, which is much worse in detail, but they were always looking forward, always focused and trying to find something positive to think about."
Watching TV one day, Mankiller says, she saw a report about a tribe fighting for its land in northern California. Reminding her of her own people, she spontaneously called and volunteered to work for the California tribe.
Mankiller says her marriage ended in divorce, because her husband was not supportive of her and wanted a more traditional wife.
"I came home in 1976," she says. "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."
Mankiller went to work for the Cherokee Nation in a low-level management position, but eventually started planning programs.
"When I began working for the Cherokee Tribal Government, there were no female executives," she says. "There had never been a female chief, and I came home with some good ideas in mind."
Elected deputy principal chief in 1983 at age 37, Mankiller succeeded the chief when he resigned two years later. Serving as executive of a tribe of 137,000 people for 10 years, Mankiller now volunteers, still passionate about the issues facing her tribe.
Mankiller is a strong advocate of women's rights, especially Native American women's rights.
"Women are all very strong," she says. "In some tribes, there are only male chiefs. But, if you lift the curtain a little bit, you see that the women select the chiefs and place them in power. ... I think that women tend to be more collaborative, by and large, than men. Women see things out of their context and a more interconnected way."
The message did not only reach women.
"Mankiller is very confident and low key, but deliberate," says City Councilman Jim Tarbell. "She exhibited a quiet strength, which was quite impressive. I agree with her that a true leader does not have to be a technician or a scientist, they need to be a good communicator."
Mankiller's lecture excited Kathy Richardson, a teacher at Seven Hills School.
"It was very exciting to hear a woman who has created leadership and understanding so well as she has," Richardson says. "I loved that she said, 'A leader is not a leader who works just for an issue. It's about passion.' " ©