Form and Content
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...
(The entire section is 1065 words.)