Thursday, June 8, 2017

Drawing on Wilma Mankiller's Strength

In the Summer of 2006 I had the unbelievable good fortune to hear Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, speak at a conference and her words have stuck with me ever since.  




(Caption at the bottom of the page) 


I had just graduated from the University of Arizona and was bumbling my way through one of my first jobs when I was sent to the Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations conference in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Wilma Mankiller was an unbelievably accomplished person.  She was a published author and respected lecturer, she held 18 honorary degrees (several of which were from Ivy League Schools), she was inducted into both the National and International Women's Hall of Fame and was one of the few Native Americans to ever receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 


She also sat on the board of the WEWIN organization.

She was an incredible human being that fought for education and equality for her people and on behalf of Indigenous people everywhere.  She is a nothing short of a hero.  

In 2006, it wasn't common to have a recording device in your pocket everywhere you go, like it is now.  Although I'm sad that I don't have a grainy video of her speaking that day, I am very glad that was allowed to simply experience her words.  

Her speech was stunning.  It was the first time a public speaker had ever brought me to tears and I was filled with so much emotion and inspiration.  She was humble and funny and I was in absolute awe of the power she emitted into the room.      

I wish I could find a transcript of her words.  I've written to the WEWIN organization to ask for the video footage of her speech, but they haven't been able to locate it.  I'll share what I can remember, even though I'll likely butcher her words and for all I know, I might be retelling her story completely wrong.  This is simply how her story lives in my heart.  

Feel free to correct me if you remembers her speech more vividly, or have footage or a transcript, I'd love to hear from you.  

Here it goes: 

She told us about winning her election and becoming the First Female Principal Chief in the Cherokee Nation.  She said that she didn't really like that title, because there had been female chiefs in the past, but their culture changed and became male dominated, and people forgot that female history.  

Her election was not easily won.  And once she became Principal Chief, her presence wasn't always welcome.    

She elaborated by telling us this story of a time when she was purposefully left out of a meeting with other chiefs.  I'm unsure of the exact breakdown, as each tribe's government or traditional structure is different, but it was their custom to have all the chiefs and the principal chief together at a gathering.  She laughingly suggested that her invitation must have gotten lost.  But she knew she had been purposefully excluded as part of a statement from the other chiefs who didn't approve of her newfound status.  Wilma didn't let that deter her from showing up at this important event.  She didn't wait for an invitation.  She simply showed up.  

When she showed up, the other chiefs were very visibly disappointed to see her.  They were all sitting on a stage, in nice, big comfortable chairs that were designated just for them.  All the seats were filled and they were conveniently one seat short.    

As she walked up to the stage, one of the other chiefs reluctantly acknowledged her.  He waved his hand to the folding chairs in the front row, where the audience members would be sitting and triumphantly sneered at her, "You can sit THERE."  

Wilma didn't hesitate at all.  She looked at the chair, smiled and said, "Thank you." Then she picked up the chair and carried it on stage.  

The other chiefs couldn't do anything expect move over for her and make room, which they reluctantly did.

She said that that experience taught her that you have to make a space for yourself, even when you don't think there's a space for you.  

I had been drawing on that powerful idea for years as I began to encounter sexism more and more frequently, or maybe I simply became more aware of it.  

But I've never needed to draw on the strength of Wilma's words more than I have since the Dawn of Trump.  Our country has become more racist and bigoted and often, I'm being made to feel unwelcome in my traditional lands.

My people were here first. 

Surprisingly, I'm not simply made to feel this way by racists, bigots.  Sometimes I can be made to feel unwelcome by new allies who are well meaning, but who can't contain their excitement at my presence.

It can be tiresome and disheartening and definitely infuriating at times to be the only brown person in a room.  It is devastating to have to explain the concept of a "system of oppression" to someone who has never before been a victim of oppression in their entire life.  I'm unsure which part is worse, seeing the look on their face as I connect the dots for them, or being able to rattle off the connections off the top of my head.  

"Why don't Native Americans vote?"
"Why don't more Native Americans have college degrees?"
"Are you from the reservation?  But did you grow up there?"

"How did you get out?"   
"How can we get more Native Americans involved?"

Sometimes I feel like I don't belong and that my voice is not valued.  I've left some places in tears, thinking I won't go back, that it's a lost cause and I should move on.  

Then I remember Wilma's advice: Make a space for yourself, even when it doesn't look like there's any space for you.  

So I keep showing up at these spaces that lack melanin, and allow myself to do things that I find interesting whether or not there are other brown people there.  

I'm making a space for myself, even when it looks like there isn't a space for me.    

Rest in Power, Wilma Mankiller-bat.  You continue to inspire.  



About the photo:
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Wilma Mankiller and I at the WEWIN Conference in 2006.

I bought a disposable camera in the hotel gift shop, because I needed to have a photo with her. I was embarrassed to ask her for the photo, but she smiled and waved me in. My husband took a few photos with the disposable camera, but the film was exposed and the photos didn't come out.

Luckily, another woman who was waiting to have her book signed offered to take our picture. The entire conference was about women helping other women, so it made all of us smile when she offered. By then, my husband had taken a few photos and it had caused a bit of disruption, but she still told the woman who offered to take a photo with her camera to take an extra one, "Just in case, to make sure we get a good one."

Wilma laughed about "looking greasy." and said she had looked better the day before. 

After we took the photo she signed my book, "Everyday is a Good Day: Reflections from Contemporary Indian Women" which she contributed to and edited.  

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