Wilma Mankiller, a step away from becoming principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, grew up on a farm where the strawberry, bean and peanut crops never earned enough money to support 11 children.
She started out poor and stayed that way, even after her father gave up farming and moved his family from Stilwell to San Francisco, hoping for a better life.
Their move was sponsored by a federal program that relocated rural Indians to cities.
“We were broke,” said Mankiller, who was 11 when the family moved to California. “My dad had a lot of children to feed, and he was promised a better life for us.”
Her father and oldest brother went to work in a warehouse. With two incomes, they saved enough money to make a down payment on a house.
Then her oldest brother married and moved away, and her father’s income alone was not enough to make mortgage payment.
“We ended up in a housing project,” said Mankiller. “It wasn’t the promised land at all.”
Almost 30 years later, Mankiller has achieved more than the promised better life.
If Principal Chief Ross Swimmer is confirmed by the Senate in his appointment as assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Mankiller will become head of the second-largest Indian tribe in the United States.
Mankiller, 39, who is deputy principal chief, would assume Swimmer’s post until August 1987, when his term expires. Then she could run for re-election.
The prospect of becoming the first woman chief of the Cherokees, a 67,500-member tribe with an annual budget of approximately $30 million, has drawn nationwide attention to Mankiller.
She has been interviewed by National Public Radio, USA Today and People magazine. An editor at Simon and Schuster has expressed interest in publishing her biography.
Her first short story, “Keeping Pace With the Rest of the World,” recently was published in Southern Exposure, a literary magazine published in Durham, N.C.
Mankiller appears unaffected by all the attention.
“People have accused me of being too matter-of-fact about all this,” she said. “I think they want me to be breathless or something. That’s not the way I am.”
Mankiller finished high school in San Francisco, married when she was 19 and had two daughters by her early 20s.
Her first divergence from what she called “the life of a housewife” occurred when a group of college students took over Alcatraz Island in 1969 and held it for more than a year as a protest against American Indian treatment.
“That was a turning point in my awareness of the national Indian problem,” said Mankiller, who raised money and gathered food and clothing for the protesters.
After the Alcatraz occupation ended, Mankiller became a volunteer at an Indian community center. She wrote newsletters, organized youth activities and did paralegal work for a tribal attorney.
Finally, the emerging activist decided to make social work a career. She enrolled in classes at San Francisco State University and went to work part time developing Indian education programs for the Oakland public school system.
Her 10 year marriage came to an end.
“My husband wanted a traditional housewife, clean clothes, clean house,” said Mankiller. “I had a stronger desire to do things in the community than at home. It was a conflict we couldn’t resolve.”
Mankiller stayed in school and took a full-time job as a social worker for an Indian resource center. For a year and a half, she raised four foster children – ages 18 months to 14 years – along-side her own daughters.
Mankiller moved back to Oklahoma with her daughters in 1977. Most of her relatives had returned by then, and her father was buried near the family farm.
After three months of job hunting and money worries, she was hired as coordinator of the Cherokee Nation’s economic stimulus program, a job she described as “a lot of grant writing.”
She won funds for job-training programs including a greenhouse and plant nursery that have grown into full-fledged businesses for the Cherokees.
Mankiller also finished her bachelor’s degree by correspondence through the Union for Experimental Colleges in Washington, D.C., and built a house on her family’s land, near the place where she grew up.
In 1979, Mankiller quit her job in the tribe’s planning and development department and started working on a master’s degree in community planning at the University of Arkansas, 65 miles from her home.
She had been in school one semester when a head-on car accident put her in the hospital for almost six months.
The right side of her face was crushed, and most of her ribs and both legs were broken. She had reconstructive facial surgery three times and 17 operations on one leg.
In 1980, while recuperating, Mankiller started having problems buttoning her clothes. She had difficulty swallowing and couldn’t maintain her balance.
It was diagnosed as myasthenia gravis, a type of muscular dystrophy.
Her thymus gland was removed, and the condition improved. She said she has had no problems since and remains on a low dose of medication.
After spending a year either in the hospital, in a wheelchair or on crutches, Mankiller postponed graduate school and went back to work for the Cherokee Nation in 1981.
She founded the community development department and started the Bell Project, an experiment in “sweat equity” where the residents of Bell, a poor rural community in Adair County, used federal funds to build their own water line and refurbish home, 95 percent of which did not have running water.
In 1983, Swimmer recruited Mankiller to run for deputy principal chief.
The idea of running never had occurred to her, she said. “I went back and forth and decided to do it. I thought Ross and I would make a good team – his national interests combined with mine in rural development.”
J.B. Dreadfulwater, one of Mankiller’s opponents in the race for deputy principal chief, described the Cherokee faction who supported him as “ones with traditional Christian feelings that a woman chief is bad, religiously speaking.”
Dreadfulwater, an evangelistic singer and superintendent of the Sequoyah Indian High School in Tahlequah, recently complimented Mankiller on her accomplishments, but expressed reservations about her skills as a political leader.
“She’s a strong-minded woman and a good program worker, and people recognize that. Her only shortcoming may be political skills,” he said, referring to Swimmer’s lobbying ability on Capitol Hill. “However, she might be a lot stronger than I think.”
Mankiller admitted it is backwoods community work, not high level politics, that interests her.
“I do what is required of me as a tribal leader,” she said. “But the work I love is rural development.”
She said she believes her priorities are in the right place.
“We have always been viewed as the sophisticated tribe, the progressive tribe,” she said.
“Organized, we are, but there are still serious problems. Every possible human need is out there.”
She has an old family photograph that serves as a reminder of those needs – a picture of Charlie and Irene Mankiller and their 11 children gathered on a farmhouse porch.