Wilma Mankiller

Commencement Address at Northern Arizona University - Dec. 18, 1992

Wilma Mankiller
December 18, 1992— Flagstaff, Arizona
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I ran into someone at the hotel this morning who asked me about how to address me since my credit card has "Wilma Mankiller, Principal Chief." I think some people still have a little trouble identifying with a female principal chief. It reminded me of the first time I had to address this issue. I went to a very prestigious eastern college to do a panel on Indian economic development, and this young man picked me up at the airport to take me to the university. He asked me, "Since principal chief is a male term, how should I address you?" I just ignored him and looked out the window of the car, and then he asked me if he should address me as "Chieftains." I continued to look out the window, and then he thought he would get silly and cute. He asked me if he should address me as "Chiefette." I finally told him to address me as Ms. Chief-mischief. So we went out to the university, and this young man was one of the people who got to ask the panel questions. His question to me was about my last name.

Mankiller is my maiden name, and way back in Cherokee history, Mankiller was like the ''keeper of the village" – like the equivalent of a general or someone who watched over a village – and this one fellow liked the title so much he kept it as his name; but that's not what I told this young man. I told him it was a nickname and I had earned it. So somewhere back East there is a young man who is wondering what I did to earn my last name.

I am not going to give the standard advice about going out into the world, because many of you have already been out in the world and worked and been very involved in your communities. What I would like to do is encourage you in whatever you pursue or wherever you go from here to get involved. What I have seen, I think, in the United States, not just in my community, tribal community, or rural community but in the United States in general, is a trend for all of us to think that somebody else is going to solve our problems for us.

It was interesting during this last year watching the presidential election and being aware of the daunting set of problems we face in this country – economy, education, health care, problems in the inner city; and everybody expecting somebody else to solve them. In the presidential election, no matter who was chosen for a candidate, people were counting on this one man to be able to articulate a clear vision for the future and then take care of all of the problems for the country. Do not think this is going to happen.

Even in my own community I have heard people talk about the environment, housing, homelessness, or any of the problems that we have: "Well, they're going to solve that problem." In American society it is always, "They're going to solve that problem." 1don't know who "they" are. I always tell our own people that I don't know who they are referring to. To me the only people who are going to solve our problems are ourselves – people like you and me. We have to personally take charge and solve our problems. I do not think that a great prophet is going to come along and save this country or save us and deal with all of these problems in a vacuum. We all have to take part. So I would encourage you to get involved; you will be immensely rewarded by getting into public service or by doing small things around your community and trying to help others.

The other advice I have to give you is, do not live your life safely. I would take risks and not do things just because everybody else does them. In my generation someone who had a big impact on me was Robert Kennedy, who in one speech said, "Some people see things the way they are and ask why, and others dream things that never were and ask why not?" I think that is where I hope many of you will be – people that question why things are and why we have to do them the way we have always done them. I hope you will take some risks, exert some real leadership on issues, and if you will, dance along the edge of the roof as you continue your life from here.

Finally, l just want to make a couple of comments about where I see our country going in general. I just came back from the Economic Summit in Little Rock, Arkansas, which was an intense two-day session focusing specifically on how to stimulate the economy, both short term and long term. I was encouraged by the number and diversity of people there – Republicans and Democrats. People from every sector of the business community and every sector of society talking collectively about how to gel the country moving again.

I think one of the things we have to do as a nation, besides addressing specific issues like the economy, health care, education, inner cities, and that sort of thing, is we have to examine the extent to which we continue to have stereotypes about one another. I think it is very difficult for us to collectively and symbolically join hands and begin to move forward in solving this country's problems if we continue to have these stereotypes about one another. There still exists in this country many negative stereotypes about black people, Latin people, and Asian people. God knows there are terrible stereotypes about Native Americans; these have to be overcome before we can move forward.

Sometimes I sit down with a diverse group of people in Oklahoma to work on some problem that we all have in common; it is almost like sitting down with people who have some kind of veil over their face or something. We all look at each other through this veil that causes us to see each other through these stereotypes. I think we need to lift back the veil and deal with each other on a more human level in order to continue to progress.

The minority population in this country is dramatically increasing, and that is a fact. If we continue to have this increase in minority population, we need to find ways of dealing with each other and working with each other in much better ways because it affects everybody. I do not think that we can say that what happens in Detroit does not somehow affect all America, because it does. I would urge all of you who are here today, both graduates and families, to examine the extent to which we hold those stereotypes about one another. And finally, I would hope my being here and spending just a couple of minutes with you today would help you lo eliminate any stereotypes you might have about what a chief looks like.