Wilma Mankiller

Interview on NPR - Oct. 13, 2008

Wilma Mankiller
October 13, 2008
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MICHELLE MARTIN: I'm Michelle Martin and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up: many of us think of lynching as something that belongs to the distant past, but for his latest documentary premiering tonight, veteran journalist Ted Koppel investigates a lynching that took place in 1981. He'll tell us about it in just a few minutes. But first, it's Columbus Day. If you have the day off, you may be catching up on sleep, errands or time with loved ones. Some people mark Columbus Day by going to parades that honor the man who school children have long been taught discovered America. But not everyone is celebrating. For people who trace their ancestry to those displaced and marginalized by the European journey to this continent, this is a day of somber reflection, even mourning. Joining us to talk about this, as well as whatever else is on her mind, is Wilma Mankiller. She was the first woman to become chief of the Cherokee Nation. She's a longtime activist and advocate for Native American rights and human rights. Wilma Mankiller, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us

MANKILLER: Thank you, I'm very happy to be here.

MARTIN: You know, I think so much of how Americans view Columbus Day is still based on what we learned in elementary school. I still remember that rhyme – in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Do you remember how you were taught about this day?

MANKILLER: You know I was taught the same was as other students are, that Columbus discovered America. And all students enter maybe, I think it's about the third grade, when you start learning about American history. And, you know, we learned that there was this great new world discovered by Columbus with beautiful oceans and bodies of water and abundant forests and foodstuffs. And well, you know, it certainly wasn't a new world to the millions of people that have lived here for thousands of years. And there's no discussion of that at all.

MARTIN: Do you remember that being sort of a crisis for you? You know how there's a point at which the reality that you know and what you have either learned either through ancestors or through your own research kind of bumps up against the narrative that you were presented. Do you remember when that happened for you and was that a crisis for you?

MANKILLER: I think it probably happened to me in 1969. We were living in San Francisco at that time. You know, I think it was the first time I heard the story that the Iroquois Confederacy, which was kind of an international group, was founded before Columbus arrived. So I began to think about what existed in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus and others who claimed to have discovered our lands. So I think probably that period of activism in the late 1960s was sort of a watershed moment for me when I realized how unfortunate it was that most Americans who had been living in our, you know, towns and villages for hundreds of years know so little about us.

MARTIN: Do you think that the basic American narrative that's been taught about Columbus has evolved over the years? Because there's been, I think, I would argue – I don't know if you agree – but since that time, since the period of Native American activism, a lot of Americans become very interested in, you know, First Peoples and what their lives and experiences have been. So do you think that the narrative's changed over time?

MANKILLER: I think it's evolved somewhat, and I wish I could say that it had evolved more. I think that in virtually every sector of society, native people – whether they're in tribal government or whether they're in the private sector or an artist – they encounter people every day who have such enormously stupid, ridiculous stereotypes about Native people and have so little accurate information about either the history of Native people or their contemporary lives. And so all of us who are active in our communities and active in the country and engage with a lot of people, every time we get together and native people we talk about that. What what kind of stupid questions where you asked recently? What can we do? Do we need to do more forums? Do we need to have more native journalists? Do we have to create more native films? What can we do to change this? And actually all those things are being done. So I'm guardedly optimistic that it will change in the future.

MARTIN: Can I ask you what stupid question you've been asked lately? Hopefully not by me.

MANKILLER: Well, I'm not…I can't think of one I've been asked lately, but I remember one time a reporter with an English accent, very clipped English accent, called me at my home in rural Oklahoma and asked me if I rode a horse to work. And I thought, you know what, I'm just going to take this guy for a ride. So I told him yes, I did. I rode a horse to work. I described the horse and I said my husband and I lived in a teepee along the edge of a river and he fished and hunted every day, and this guy was writing this stuff down!

MARTIN: Oh my. But on the other hand, how do you respond to those who say that the desire to explore other worlds is also human and that Columbus, for example, can't be blamed for what happened after.

MANKILLER: Well, I think that obviously the desire to explore new worlds is human. I'm not sure the desire to conquer other lands is necessarily the best human attribute, or to kill indigenous people and exploit their natural resources is a human attribute that many of us would find very admirable.

MARTIN: How do you think we should talk about Columbus Day?

MANKILLER: I think in a balanced view. And I really think that Columbus Day can be used just as you're doing. It can be used as an opportunity to have a conversation and to provide a little more education to people about the indigenous people that were here before Columbus. And to make sure that Americans have some sort of historical and cultural context for understanding our contemporary issues. It's really hard to understand contemporary Native American issues if you have no historical or cultural context. So I think that Columbus can be discussed in a balanced way and it can provide an enormous opportunity for education, for conversations.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with activist Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. After our conversation, I'm going to speak with journalist Ted Koppel about a new documentary that he's presenting about lynching. And I know that some of the response that we're going to get is get over it. And so, of course, this is a conversation that happens both within communities and outside of communities and among communities. You know, within the community some leaders will say: Well, you know, is focusing on the painful history and victimization really the best idea? This is distracting, it's harmful. Does this kind of conversation also go on, I think, among Native Americans at a time like this when we're thinking about a painful history?

MANKILLER: It does go on, but I think that whether it's family history or political history or a history of what I would characterize as genocide, I think that you have to acknowledge it. I think you have to acknowledge it and talk about it in order to move forward in a good way, together, as human beings. But to hide it or pretend it doesn't exist is not a good idea. I don't think that necessarily means that we need to go around every day with anger in our hearts and about what happened to us historically, I think. But I think it's important to acknowledge it and think about it.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk a little bit about a big issue going on today, which is the presidential race. Are there specific issues that are particularly important to Native Americans that we should be thinking about in the context of this election?

MANKILLER: I think that there are a couple of issues that I think that most tribal organizations and governments and communities would agree on. One is to make sure that the next president recognizes the government-to-government relationship between tribal governments in the United States government, recognizes the treaty rights of tribal governments. And then another huge issue among many or most tribal governments is healthcare. It's a national disgrace that 48 million people in this country, many of them children, do not have health care. They can't go to the doctor when they get sick. They can't have chemotherapy if they're diagnosed with cancer. So I would say healthcare and tribal treaty rights and sovereignty would be the two big issues.

MARTIN: And I wanted to talk about the fact as a history maker yourself that this election has been historic from beginning to end. There was Hillary Clinton, whom you initially endorsed, was in the hunt to become the Democratic nominee. We've got the first African-American, potentially, to become president of the United States. We've got the first woman, well the second woman, on a major party ticket, Sarah Palin. You know there was a lot of conversation on race vs gender, which one is the more compelling factor in American life. And as a person who has been a history maker yourself, do you have some thoughts about that?

MANKILLER: I thought it was a healthy discussion during the Democratic primary because Obama's brilliant, Hillary was experienced. You know, we had two great candidates. Was it all healthy and helpful? No, but I think overall it was a good discussion and I think that in future elections, from this point forward, we will choose our candidates from a larger pool, a pool that includes women and a pool that includes people of color, and I don't think we'll go back.

MARTIN: We've been talking with a number of writers, thinkers, activists for a series we call What If, about what a black president would mean for this country, what the election of Barack Obama would mean for this country. What are your thoughts about that?

MANKILLER: Well, you know, I'm gonna tell you something emotional rather than political. My husband and I visited South Africa three or four years ago, and for the people in South Africa it would it would mean the world. And then in April, my daughter and I got stranded at the Memphis airport and we drove into rural Mississippi where it appeared to me that there was still some degree of segregation. And for the children and the families – African-American children and families I saw in rural Mississippi – it would mean the world to them. And so I think that just thinking about the enormous impact it would have on people in places like rural Mississippi or Southern Africa and other places around the world, is very inspiring to me.

MARTIN: Do you think that it has meaning for other people of color?

MANKILLER: I do. It certainly does for me. I think that as Senator Obama put together a group of well-qualified advisors on Native American policy, and what was clear in their first meeting is that he understood oppression and he understood what it meant to be a person of color and live from paycheck to paycheck. So yeah, I do think it matters. I think that it matters to people who struggle everywhere – not just people of color. I think working people – people who have to figure out, you know, whether they can go to the doctor or not, or whether they are going to be able to get a small loan to get a new car. I don't think that this is the most important thing in a presidential race for the person to be someone you have a beer with necessarily, but I think it's important for them to understand somewhat about the lives that most Americans live. I believe that Senator Obama understands that.

MARTIN: Wilma Mankiller is a writer and human rights activist. She served as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995. She was the first woman to serve as principal chief of a major North American tribe. Wilma Mankiller joined me from member station KWGS in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Thank you so much for joining us.

MANKILLER: You're quite welcome.

Interview from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95622629.