Wilma Mankiller

Ex-Cherokee Chief, and current UO law professor, sounds off about how U.S. society judges tribes.

Wilma Mankiller muses that perhaps her last name is why she gets so much attention.

But it's more than a name that earned Mankiller a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 and a Woman of the Year award from Ms. Magazine in 1987. Two decades ago, Mankiller made history when she became the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. For 10 years, she held the top leadership position in the tribe, which—with about 250,000 members—is the second-largest in the United States.

Now, the 60-year-old Mankiller spends a lot of time working with her husband in rural Oklahoma on community-development projects and volunteering for the American Indian College Fund and Institute of American Indian Arts.

Currently, she's spending the semester at the University of Oregon's Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, team-teaching classes on Native American culture and law. In two recent conversations with WW, Mankiller spoke about Indian casinos, the pluses and minuses of tribal government, and what ticks her off about U.S. society.

WW: Do you think casinos are hurting tribes politically with the non-Indian public?

Wilma Mankiller: They could with a certain segment of the population. There are some people who have come to believe that because tribes operate tribal gaming enterprises, that that somehow defines them. And it doesn't. It's just a business. Oregon has a lottery, and the lottery doesn't define what it means to be a citizen of Oregon. Some tribes have gaming enterprises, and that doesn't necessarily define who they are as a people.

There are still a lot of social problems on reservations: poverty, poor health, housing, etc. Has sovereignty failed?

No, quite the contrary. I think people outside tribal communities tend to focus on the housing and economic issues. What we see in our communities that outsiders don't see is the strong sense of interdependence. We see a lot of self-help projects, projects where people will group together and help one another, whether it's to raise money for a scholarship or build their own water line or build their own houses. I've traveled all over the world, and we live in a lower-income Cherokee community within the Cherokee Nation. Mostly what I like about being home is the fact that people still help one another and they feel a responsibility for one another.

So what needs to happen for improvement on the economic issues?

Alot of things are improving. Again, outside people focus on the things that aren't working. It's sort of like people write one book with a certain set of facts or a certain view, and all the researchers and scholars read that one book as a basis. [That's how it is] in journalism. People would rather see our people as victims than see them as survivors. We see ourselves as survivors.

What are some things about larger American society that tick you off?

I think the continual drive to assimilate our people into the mainstream culture, and yet the people that are the most ardent proponents of assimilating our people aren't able to articulate what American culture is. If you look at television or popular culture, this is the message you get about American culture: that wealth determines the value of a human being. And there's a great deal of emphasis on physical appearance. The thing that bothers me the most is people keep saying, "You have to give up who you are, give up your identity and adopt the values of the larger society," and yet they can't articulate what those values are.

A lot of minority groups in this country are fighting to be integrated into society. Why aren't Native Americans asking for integration?

There's a huge difference between native people and other people of color. We have our own government, and we have our own land. We're not from someplace else, trying to fight for inclusion. We have a culture that is thousands of years old, and so it's more of a sense of wanting to maintain that. That doesn't mean we want to put up walls and isolate ourselves, but we do want to simply maintain a strong sense of who we are.

Mankiller will talk about "Tribes, Treaties, and Trust: Modern Nation Relations" at the Portland Art Museum's Whitsell Auditorium (1219 SW Park Ave.) at 6:30 pm Tuesday, Nov. 29. Free.

Mankiller's last name comes from a Cherokee military title given to someone who protects a village.