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Interview Transcript
Ancestral Lands
Wilma Mankiller

Community and Land

Well, I think the way we've always thought of ourselves, from the distant past even to today, is that we've thought of ourselves as tribal people. And as people who are interdependent and who are connected. And one of the things that we understand to be part of who we are is our responsibility to one another. And our willingness to share things with one another. And part of that is our understanding that the use of the land is for everybody and for everything. And so until the beginning of the twentieth century, we Cherokee people held our land in common just as we held our other resources in common and we were very community-oriented, very centered around place.

For example, we had one ceremony in the distant past, one ancient ceremony, in which each year after a number of dances and ceremonies, an all-night ceremony, a central fire would be built in the middle of a village, a special place. And all of the families would put out the fires in their homes, any fire they had in their home for cooking or any other fire, and they would go to the central fire and light a fire from the central fire and take it back and light their fires in their homes. This was a community, a place. So place was very important to people. And the idea that you could take a commonly owned place, a community, and parcel out pieces of that and sell it off into individual ownership and break up the community was devastating to our people. Many of our people maintained up until the beginning of the twentieth century that concept of land ownership and as a part of that responsibility to one another and a sense of community. So it wasn't just about the land. I don't think that many of our indigenous cultures can survive without land. And be viable living cultures. But it wasn't just about land. It was about community. And about our understanding that everything was for everyone. Basically that no one should live better than other people; that the land was owned by everybody. Or not even owned, was used by everybody.

It's an unanswered question because it's an ongoing debate in our communities today. And even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, some people who are more tradition-minded Cherokee people who had a meeting this weekend to talk about building H.U.D. homes on tribal-owned trust land. They know that they'll never have ownership of the homes. It's not as if you and I would go out and get a mortgage and make your payments, then you'll eventually own the home. They know they'll never own the homes. The land is owned by the tribe. And so these people are people who still think that's okay. It doesn't matter. You have a place to live.

Spirits of Life

When I've talked with some people, they talk about being concerned about their relatives, for example. They're not just talking about their human relatives, they're talking about everything, you know, everything that's alive, because they're related. And among our people, most of our clans are named after animals. The people's clans are named after animals. And among the Cherokee, one of the clans, I think, it's the bear clan; there's a story that some of the people went to become bears. So there's a very close relationship among some of the tribes there. Many of the tribes, I think their tribes are named after animals as a direct association and so people will say I'm from the deer clan, I'm from the bird clan, I'm from the wolf clan. I'm not sure that I can even articulate it. But it's a way of thinking and a way of viewing things in the world and in the universe that's more heartfelt and it's a closer, more emotional feeling than the kind of intellectual things that environmentalists talk about. They intellectualize it and that sort of thing, but if you can talk to some older native people and some of the women I've talked to, they make every environmentalist I've ever talked to sound like they're full of nonsense.

These people live, you know, live with everything in the world. They realize that some plants were gifts of nature to heal, you know, for medicine, and they realize that everything is living in balance and that if you take something out of its context, it changes the nature of everything and so it's a very, very different way of looking at things. So it's a very different way of looking at the environment even. It's not the environment, it's not separate from one's self or one's life. And a lot of the tribes have stories of relationships to the stars; they have very beautiful stories about water and the use of water for healing and medicine and fire, and use of fire and smoke for healing and renewal and a lot of things like that, so it's not separate. It's not separate. It's the same relationship you would have with a brother, a sister, an uncle or an aunt, or something like that. That's the way I see the difference. I'm sure somebody else would have a different view.

We Can't Live Without the Earth

I think the most important thing is for people to protect that the world and the land, the earth, sustains us. The air and the water and the whole world sustain us. And that we should do everything that we can to protect and nurture and maintain and preserve the world. It just sustains us. And the way for children, I think, to think about this is that the earth can live without us, but we can't live without the earth. You know, they think about water and think about a lot of the other things here. They can survive without us. Water can survive without people. People can't survive without water. It's a very simple way that children can think about that. So we should be very careful not to pollute or to destroy all these things in the earth. The earth gave us these things as gifts. Water is a gift for us. We should be thankful for that.

The Center of My Life

It would be if you had a family and a community and you know, land. It was easier. I never have regretted leaving—and I was very, very San Francisco. We went to plays, we went to movies. We were involved politically. We took BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit], we didn't even have a car. All, you know, everything you don't do. In a rural area you have to have a car, there's no place to go. I haven't seen places—that sort of thing and I never looked back. Never missed it. Never regretted it or anything. So I think what you get from having a relationship with land and with people is so much richer than anything I could have gotten from everything else that it makes a difference. Or even, I was telling her earlier, I spent a semester as a visiting fellow at Dartmouth and I spent another—all in all I spent almost a year in Boston. And the intellectual stimulation was incredible. But for me, it was empty. You know, it was, sure, I read all these great books. It was great to sit down with to have dinner with the president of an Ivy League College or something, but I wanted to be home. So I think that's the difference.

My grandfather made medicine, and here this land was allotted to him at the turn of last century. And the spring. And we could gather water at the spring when we were children, and so I can walk to that spring now. And so I'm not willing to go back to not having indoor plumbing. Anyway, so there's a definite connection. There's all sorts of stories here about the land as well. My children, they swore, as soon as they got to be eighteen, they were going back to San Francisco. They were going to be out of here. But they both live near here and enjoy, you know, enjoy being here.

Government by the People

Let me start with the whole concept of nationhood, and then I'll talk about our specific situation. I think that every third grader in the United States, no matter where they are, that's usually when people start learning about history or some period during primary school. And they're taught that Columbus discovered this great land with glorious mountains and a beautiful place, this New World. Well, it wasn't a new world to the thousands and thousands of people who already lived here. So if you think about the people that lived here, all human beings, no matter where they live on earth, or what their conditions are, have political and social systems within which they operate. And our people were no different.

Tribal people had tribal governments that predated the government of the United States by thousands of years. That is not what's taught in the public school system. Only the most enlightened teachers will tell people that there were people who had governments here before that, and/or tell people that Native people that were here actually negotiated and executed treaties with Spain, with England, with France, and then the newly emerging United States. Long before there was the government that they're familiar with.

There's a famous author, Jack Weatherford, who always says that Columbus thinks he discovered America, but actually America's never been discovered because people have never really thought about and learned about Native people. Anyway my point is that there were governments here that had existed long before the United States government. And there was even a United Nations among the Iroquoisan people. They formed a union called the Iroquois Confederacy before Columbus arrived and the purpose of the Union was to stop fighting and stop war between their people, their nations. And it was basically an association for the purpose of peace, trade, and friendship. And very few people ever learn about that, and so the concept of nationhood and of the special relationship that tribal nations enjoy with the federal government predates the United States.

Choosing Chiefs and Leaders

In the Cherokee Nation, it's an elective process. There's an elected principal chief, an elected deputy principal chief, and then a fifteen-member tribal council. And in modern times, the deputy principal chief presides over the tribal council, much as the vice president symbolically presides over the United States Senate. So it's similar in some ways. The reason we have the title principal chief, I think, is sort of a take on historical times when our Cherokee people had a peace chief and a war chief. And then there'd be a principal chief as a spokesperson. All these people—principal chief, deputy chief and members of the tribal council—are elected every four years in a popular election by popular vote.

A Woman Chief

I first ran for deputy chief and won that. No woman had ever won that election before, and then our chief resigned in mid-term, and according to our constitution, the deputy chief assumes the position, so I finished out his term. And then I ran—it's a very difficult process because we'd never had a woman before. And when you have even the most enlightened people, if you have a certain image of what a specific leader's going to be, it's hard to break through that. And all of the images you could see from the historic images up to the time I was elected, all the Cherokee chiefs and the Cherokee leaders that we think about are all male. And so anyway, it was very difficult to get people to focus on the issues that I was addressing and not the fact that I'm female. And so probably the biggest issue in my first race for principal chief was my being a woman, so I simply did not focus on that and would not get into arguments which would really in my view [be] nonsensical about whether or not women should be in leadership. I don't even think that's a question worth debating. And so I just focused on the issues and kept moving forward.

Keys to Good Conduct

Before there were all the rules, regulations, and written laws that we live by now, Cherokee people had an understanding of how to conduct themselves as people. And how they got this understanding of how to conduct themselves as people was that once a year a great person, a designated person, would come out and would talk to people and sort of remind them how they were to conduct themselves. There was great ceremony and people who had committed crimes were absolved of their crimes of the last year; there was a period of renewal and forgiveness and that sort of thing for everything that had happened except capital crime. And during that time period, there would also be a reading of the wampum belts. The wampum belt was a way of recording the way we should conduct ourselves as people. And so while I don't think that Cherokee people would necessarily refer to those things as a constitution, that's how I refer to them. It's the same thing. It's how do we conduct ourselves as a people? And through this annual ceremony, they would do that. What I find so fascinating is there was this annual ceremony and the reading and someone telling us how to conduct ourselves as a people; it's still going on today among the traditional-oriented people. Very, very interesting to me.

It's had an incredible impact, even on people today, because for young people who need inspiration, they can look back and see that group of people who had no idea how to establish an educational system or tribal council met and said this is the world we live in, this is what we have to deal with. In order to deal with this, we're gonna have to figure out, we're gonna have to get educated in their ways. And so they set up their own educational system and it's just remarkable to look back at that time after the removal and see these people make a decision to do that. And then the story of establishing an educational system for women is even more remarkable. They sent some emissaries out to Mt. Holyoke College and asked some of the women from Mt. Holyoke to come here and help them set up the Cherokee Female Seminary and they did. And it's just a remarkable story; the courage of the women to head out, you know, to Indian territory with very few amenities at that time and help the Cherokee government set up schools is an inspirational story. And it's one that's told often here to people to encourage people to get an education, figure out how to live successfully in both the Cherokee world and the non-Cherokee world.

Government to Government

So when the colonies started forming and trading with the individual tribal nations, that's when they began executing agreements and treaties and dealing with tribal people as separate nations. And that's the basis of the relationship we still see in existence today. When you talk to a tribal government and the tribal government says "we have a government-to-government relationship with the Federal Government," that's a relationship that began from the beginning of contact between Europeans and tribal people, when the United States was actually just an infant. It was an infant government.

And so today we have tribal governments, all the federally recognized tribes have a government relationship with the federal government, but they take many forms and the status of the land has many forms. For example, the Navajo Nation has a huge land base that spans part of three states. Maybe a little tip of a fourth state. Several states anyway. And then there are tiny little rancherias in California that have less than 20 acres, but they [have] full federal status. In our case, all of what is now the present day Cherokee Nation was Indian territory, or was part of Indian territory, and this was the Cherokee Nation. And so what was the Cherokee Nation today, rather than being a reservation, what you see is really a territory. It was a territory and so some of the land has the same status, legal status as land on a reservation. And some of it's land that non-native people own or the tribe just has fee simple title to so if you put a map up on a wall, it would have a lot of mixed descriptions of the legal status of the land. And so people who are citizens of tribal nations consider themselves dual citizens of both their nations and United States citizens as well.

Two Worlds: Two Planets

Well, it's hard for people in the world we live in where people are busily talking on their cell phones and dealing with the technology we have today—the computer technology and other technology we have today—and the busy, busy lives people have, and flying here and yon, and doing all the things they do with the concerns that they have, worrying about whether their mutual funds have any value or all that. It's hard for people to think in terms of tribal delegates going to Washington and negotiating agreements and that those agreements are still valid. It's as if it were another, you know, another planet or something. An entirely different world. And so, that was an another era. It was another time. It was a time that people can't conceive of or they can't think about—they don't know how to think about it. And so what I try to remind people is that these are legally binding agreements that were negotiated in good faith. And that our people gave up, particularly the Cherokee People, all tribes, I won't say just particularly the Cherokee People, but Native people in general gave up hundreds of thousands of acres of land and thousands and thousands of lives in exchange for the rights that we were guaranteed under the treaties. So I think it's important to always remind people of these treaties, and remind them that just because they're old and we do live in this very, very busy, fast-paced world, that we can[not] ignore those treaties and ignore the rights that the treaties guaranteed Native peoples. A small, small price to honor the treaties. Small price to pay for everything that we lost, as our people lost.

Thieves and Cheaters

The Cherokee removal of 1838 and 1839 was a horrible, horrible experience for thousands of people. And they were people just like me who were trying to live their lives and go about their business and [their] own government. The United States government basically went out and rounded them up like cattle and held them in stockades throughout the Southeast and then forcibly moved them to Indian territory—what is now Oklahoma—over the course of 1838 and 1839.

So it's hard to make a comparison: to physically go in and take someone's property and auction it off in a lottery to people who want their property and send these Cherokee families off to stockades where many of the approximately four thousand people who died during the Cherokee Removal, many of them died in the stockades, being held in the conditions there, and then others died in the removal itself. So it's hard to make a comparison between the two because of the scope of what happened, but I think there's another story to the Cherokee Removal. Besides leaving everything they'd ever known behind— their government, their social system, extended family system, the land, everything—culture—behind and then losing so many people during the removal. About a fourth of the entire tribe. What's more remarkable I think about the removal is how our people reacted to that.

Recovering from Removal

After the removal—the last contingent of Cherokees was removed in April, 1839. Almost immediately after that, the Cherokee people, despite all that, began to rebuild the Cherokee Nation in the Indian territory; began to rebuild their families; began to talk about how to move forward. And it's just remarkable to see what they were able to do in a short period of time. Build institutions of government that still stand today, as the oldest buildings in what is now Oklahoma, built the judicial system, built a school system, not just for boys but for girls as well, printed a newspaper in Cherokee and English. This is within twenty years of going through this devastation. So it it's an interesting story and I think it's a testament to the tenacity of Cherokee people to look at how they reacted after the removal and their reaction to the removal.

Where is Home?

Well, some moved on their own, interestingly, before the removal. Medicine men know things, you know, that other folks don't. And some of the great medicine men have predicted or said "we're gonna move west." And so some there were settlements here in Arkansas and Oklahoma. But the forced removal was in 1838 and 1839. Then this became ancestral lands. We know that that's the old land and there's lots of trips back and forth to North Carolina and Georgia and Tennessee and that sort of thing. And that's sort of our identity. And most of us who are interested in those things, we find out exactly where in the Southeast we're from—Tennessee, or Georgia, or North Carolina—and have a connection to that place, but we've been here now, since 1838 and 1839, so this has more emotional meaning for us. This is where I was raised as a child and so it has more of an emotional meaning.

Which World to Live in? (Wilma's Story)

Some people have written about the whole relocation era, in which the government removed not just people from our tribe, but from many tribes to urban areas. It was a time when people experienced culture shock. But that's an understatement. For us to leave a Cherokee community, where Cherokee was predominantly spoken, where there's no electricity, no paved roads, very little contact with an outside world, a community where we were dependent on one another for survival. We traded goods with our neighbors and had a very insulated community, and get on a train and then end up in the red-light district of San Francisco in a hotel was like landing on Mars. And so that was a very difficult time for my family. Even though we lived in San Francisco for twenty years before coming home, I don't think that we ever left Oklahoma. I don't think we ever left our land. I don't think we ever left the Cherokee Nation. We lived in San Francisco and had a rich and interesting life. And certainly interesting to be there during the '60s, but I think that none of us ever felt whole again until we came back to the land and also came back to our community here and it was a very difficult experience. Very, very difficult experience for our family and it was basically a government policy that failed. Because not only did our family return home, but most of the families who were relocated from other tribes returned to their homes eventually as well.

I'm not sure that it had an impact on the Cherokee Nation as a whole, because the relocation of Cherokees wasn't as extensive, I don't think, as it was among other tribes. But certainly there was a significant amount of relocation, because the Cherokee Nation during that period of time was not—it was not a real active period of time for the Cherokee Nation. I'm sure there was an impact. I don't know that I could tell you what the impact of that was. I think nationally, the intent of it was to continue a long process of breaking up tribal families and breaking up tribal communities and trying to mainstream them into the larger society. And that simply didn't work. It didn't work for me, it didn't work for my family. It didn't work for my tribe. It didn't work for the other tribes. It was a failed and very ill-advised policy in my view.

The only real similarity I see between the two is that the relocation policies of the 1950s were a continuation of policies that began basically soon after early relationships began between tribes and the federal government, and that was a policy of trying to figure out what to do with Native people. What to do with Cherokee people. And so a series of policies began that I think were very destructive to tribal people. The removal of the Cherokee certainly was one and then it continues on. There are many more between the Removal Act that resulted in the Cherokee removal and the relocation policies of the '50s, but it's the same sort of thinking and the same sort of thread. In terms of the actual impact of the removal, I don't think there was much of a comparison.

Regaining Land

That's a tough question because I think that, for one thing, as tribes continue their relationship with the federal government, I think it's really important to always couch their relationships and their requests in terms of treaty rights so that you always keep that sort of front and center. I think that it's really, really important for tribes who are now generating revenue from gaming and other sources like that to use the newfound revenue to acquire land and to recreate a land base of sorts. So I think it's important for tribes to have a land acquisition plan. And to plan over a long period of time to acquire land and hold that for future generations. I can't imagine how cultures can exist and go on without land. So I think land is very, very important with regard to legal remedies.

It's a dicey situation because for a lengthy period of time, going to the Supreme Court was a proper way to address land issues and reparation and trying to get some justice and that sort of thing, and that's changed. And so I think people still see going to the United States Congress as a way of doing that. But aside from trying to go to Congress or go to the Courts or use special commissions, it's very important for tribes to be proactive in purchasing as much land as they can, too. Is that fair? No. And they have a claim and a right to lots of land and those things should go on. But I also think from a practical standpoint, it's important to just purchase as much land as possible.

It's a political process that's going to take a time to take hold. In our tribe, they're just negotiating some land settlement and I think they're hoping that they get that settlement, that they'll use the proceeds to buy land. And so we're big advocates of them having a land acquisition plan.

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