In 1958, when Wilma Mankiller was 13 years old, she was living in a housing project in San Francisco. She was a ‘street kid’ who was ‘in trouble’ and ‘always on the edge.’
Twenty-seven years later, she became the first female chief of the Cherokee nation. In 1998, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given in the United States.
Mankiller’s transformation was brought about by the influence of one woman.
‘[When I was 13,] this woman, Justine Buckskin, looked at me and saw something different,’ Mankiller said. ‘She looked beyond the rough edges and saw potential. And by believing in me when I didn’t even believe in myself, and in extending a hand to me, she was the person who helped me take my first step toward leadership.’
Helping other people is an important part of American Indian culture, according to Mankiller, who spoke at UC Irvine on Nov. 2.
‘The strong sense of community and reciprocity, I think, is very important for you to understand about our people,’ Mankiller said. ‘In our world … there’s a much higher premium that’s placed on the common good and on the community than there is on the individual.’
In particular, Mankiller stressed the importance of women helping women, and said that she hoped she could have a similar effect on young women today to the one Buckskin had on her almost 50 years ago.
‘I feel very hopeful that the women that I talked with have decided to define for themselves what it means to be a woman and are planning to do a lot of really interesting things with their lives,’ Mankiller said, referring to the UCI students with whom she had spent the day.
Mankiller’s speech gave a distinctly feminist perspective on American Indian issues. Her observation that women can think more clearly than men drew cheers from the mostly female audience who had packed into the McDonnell Douglas Engineering Auditorium and two overflow rooms.
In order to understand the contributions of Native women, however, Americans need a basic understanding of American Indian culture in general
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