Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although bearing the inscription “autobiography,” Mankiller: A Chief and Her People is much more than the personal life story of one woman. Instead, the book addresses the parallel history of two entities—the United States of America and the Cherokee Nation—from the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the onslaught of European immigration through the closing of the twentieth century. This perspective on history differs from traditional classroom fare, however, because it is recapitulated by a female American Indian—Wilma Pearl Mankiller, the first woman ever elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

The work is organized into thirteen chapters that float back and forth between the history of the Cherokee people and Mankiller’s personal time line. Within this context, the material appears to be as much an attempt to demythologize the historical entanglements of her people as it is an effort to review the highlights of her life. Because of the random organization and sometimes needless repetition of salient points, it is difficult to extract the personal history from the tribal history. Therefore, the reader must assume that Mankiller considers these facts inseparable. Each chapter is introduced by a traditional Cherokee story or myth and features interspersed quotes from famous personages as diverse as President Andrew Jackson, former Cherokee chief John Ross, and feminist Gloria Steinem.

As principal chief of the Cherokees, the second largest Indian tribe in the United States, Mankiller serves a population of more than 140,000 worldwide, controls an annual budget of more than $75 million, and employs more than 1,200 employees spread across 7,000 square miles. In this capacity, her responsibilities are equivalent to those of a head of state, such as the president of the United States, and of a chief executive officer of a major corporation. Some believe that this position was her destiny, but it was not always readily apparent in Mankiller’s shy early years.

The daughter of Charley, a full-blooded Cherokee, and Irene, who was of Dutch-Irish descent, Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born on November 18, 1945, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the sixth of eleven children. Tahlequah is the seat of Adair County, which has the largest percentage of American Indians of any county in the United States. It is the area once designated by the federal government as Indian Territory and was the terminus of the infamous Trail of Tears (1838-1839), which forced the Cherokee people to vacate their ancestral lands in the South.

Although the family was poor, Wilma...

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Mankiller Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although Mankiller has been repeatedly honored, from being named Ms. magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1987 to receiving honorary degrees from several prestigious universities to being treated as a head of state, she retains humility, believing that such attention should be deflected to her people. When she became chief, there was an increase in revenue and services, new businesses moved into the tribe’s area, more than $20 million in construction projects were soon initiated, programs were begun to aid women on welfare in developing microenterprises, a Job Corps Training Center was built, and an array of services for Cherokee children were added.

While describing herself as a feminist and being concerned with women’s issues worldwide, Mankiller is known for her love of all people and for her innate spirituality. Calling herself the “woman who lived before and the woman who lived afterward” (that is, after her brush with death following the automobile accident), Mankiller does not believe in sacrificing her principles. She wishes to be a role model for young female Cherokees who would not have dared to attempt leadership roles in the tribal community before her election as chief. She encourages these young women to take risks willingly, to stand up for things in which they believe, and to accept the challenge of serving as leaders of their people.

Mankiller Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Debo, Angie. A History of the Indians of the United States. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970. Based on more than thirty years of research, this book is an in-depth historical survey of all the native peoples of North America, analyzing their lifestyles and problems since the first encounters with Europeans. A professor of history, Debo is considered the premier authority on American Indians, and this work, which traces the path from myth to revitalization, has been called the best one-volume history of this subject.

Deloria, Vine, Jr. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan, 1969. Written by the former executive director of the National Congress of Native Americans, this book is a diatribe on the injustices served upon and suffered by American Indians. It shatters many of the myths, half-truths, and stereotypes that linger in the annals of classroom history books. Called by the author (and by Mankiller) the manifesto of the American Indian, the work reveals the perspective of Indian disenfranchisement and acculturation from a nonwhite view and is considered the definitive work on the topic.

Ehle, John. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. New York: Doubleday, 1988. The work traces the history of the Cherokee people, from the 1700’s through the tribe’s forced removal to...

(The entire section is 464 words.)