Lessons of tolerance: former Cherokee chief brings experience to Dartmouth College – Wilma Mankiller
Hanover, NH — In many ways, Wilma Mankiller seems out of place in New Hampshire, a state where 96 out of every 100 residents are white and which refuses to recognize the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Mankiller, a former chief of the Cherokee Indian nation, will spend the next nine weeks on fellowship at Dartmouth College, where she hopes to bring to New Hampshire the lessons of nearly two decades of activism and tolerance
“The people [who] don’t have a lot of interaction with minority people or with women in leadership roles or with Native Americans, they are the ones we ought to be talking to,” said Mankiller soon after arriving at Dartmouth. “Because of the lack of diversity throughout the state of New Hampshire, it’s probably more important that I be here rather than be somewhere where there is a lot of diversity.”
Mankiller, now 50 years old, came to Dartmouth as its 1996 Montgomery Fellow after leading the 156,000-member Cherokee tribe for 12 years as its first female chief. During her time as its leader, she gained national recognition not only for her work championing the rights of Native Americans and Native American children, but for her efforts to aid women and minorities in general. She has talked personally with three presidents, was Ms. magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1987, and was recently named one of “50 Great Americans” by the Marquis publication, Who’s Who.
“I had been there long enough,” Mankiller says of her three terms as Cherokee chief. “It was really time for a change for me and for the folks in the Cherokee Nation. I began to sound like the people I used to protest against, and I said if that ever happened. I’d leave.”
Faculty in the school’s highly-regarded Native American Studies department said Mankiller’s acceptance of the prestigious fellowship brings a living bit of history to their program.
“To have her here for a significant length of time will give students access to a prominent native elder, stateswoman and national political figure,” said Michael Hanitchak, who heads the college’s Native American Program. “It’s also a wonderful opportunity to have a positive role model on campus. It gives us a real opportunity to get to know her intimately.”
Dartmouth was founded in 1769 after a school for Native Americans in Connecticut moved to Hanover, so in many ways Mankiller’s acceptance of the fellowship brings the school back to its original purpose.
“It is at the very least a very real boost for our program,” said Collin Callaway, a professor of Native American studies. “It gives us a prominent person who is experienced in the world of Indian affairs, somebody who is respected on all fronts. And it brings to our students an impressive role model.”
Spirit of Community
A spirit of community involvement has pervaded Mankiller’s life. It is an ideal that was instilled by her father, she said, and her 10 brothers and sisters. They learned to care for the less-fortunate at an early age, even though they had little themselves.
“The value in our family is that we should do something for the larger community, It was inconceivable that we would just go out and go to work to gain personal wealth or success, but rather we would find a way to be of service.”
While at Dartmouth, Mankiller will give several guest lectures around campus, at the nearby Vermont School of Law, and will host a number of informal discussions about Native American issues. But her most important goal during her winter-long visit, will be to meet and get to know the 150 or so Native American students on campus, and help them become active and secure in their heritage. In New Hampshire, that task is doubly important, she said.
“I hope to be able to eliminate negative stereotypes (New Englanders) have about Native American people,” she said. “Because there is such a lack of accurate information about Native American people the vacuum gets filled with nonsensical stereotypes. By my being here, I can help talk about our contemporary life and our contemporary issues, and put it into some kind of historical context as well.”
After she leaves Dartmouth in mid-March, she will return to the home in Oklahoma that she shares with her husband and fellow activist, Charlie Soap. After taking a respite from responsibility she expects to refocus her energy on helping Native American children through a variety of programs at tribal schools and community centers. Eventually, she said, she’ll begin another book. She has already authored two.
Mankillers stay in New Hamsphire will coincide with the state’s presidential primary, an event she said she has a considerable interest in. Because New Hampshire’s primary is the nation’s first, it traditionally garners a great amount of national media attention, and is one of the most hotly-contested races in the presidential campaign. With the political climate tilting to the right, and with the next president inevitably stumping through New Hampshire, she is in a unique position to catch the attention of politicians that traditionally have ignored Native Americans.
Political Ill Will
“The people who used to shoot us are now saying we need legislation to do away with the `special rights’ of the Native American people,” Mankiller said. “This new Congress has no interest whatsoever in Native American issues. Not only are we not on the screen, but with this new group (of conservatives) there is, I feel, ill will.”
Politics, though, won’t come into play much as she lectures at Dartmouth. She’s more concerned with the cultural issues facing Native Americans and where they are heading as they enter the next century. Only recently have tribes begun to crawl out from under the thumb of history and the American government, she said. Where they go next is an important step.
“In the last 15 or 20 years, native people have started trusting their own thinking again, and started believing in our own ability to articulate our own vision for the future,” said Mankiller. “We have a couple of hundred years of experience with (government) and we’re just now sort of coming out from under that, starting to say we can use our own traditional ideas and ways of doing things to revitalize our communities and rebuild ourselves as a people.”
Some of that depends on how tribes adapt to the telecommunications revolution, how they choose to become part of the nation’s political machinery and, for the tribes that run casinos, how they learn to exert their new-found economic and political power.
“Despite all the social indicators of decline, we are a vibrant people who have not only survived everything that has happened to us, but we are actually thriving,” she said. “As we face the 21st century, we feel confident that we will be able to move into it on our own terms.”
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