'We have to tell our own stories' Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, answers a question posed by an AIJI student. Mankiller spoke to the journalism students Tuesday in the Freedom Forum Conference Room of the Al Neuharth Media Center. by David Lias In the old Cherokee nation, Wilma Mankiller's ancestors were warriors who watched over villages.
"That's the origin of my name," she said. "But I've told a lot of people it's a nickname, and I've earned it."
Mankiller's audience, made up of 24 Native American journalism students from across the United States, and their faculty, delighted in Mankiller's show of humor.
They also knew, after hearing her message Tuesday night, that there was a bit of truth to her lighthearted statement.
Just like her ancestors, Mankiller is watching over, and hoping to protect and improve, the way of life of Native Americans.
"My name is part of my identity, really, and so I think, personally it has been an asset," Mankiller told students and faculty of the American Indian Journalism Institute (AIJI). "Politically, I think it was. When I first ran for office, people remembered my name."
Mankiller was guest of honor at a banquet meal held Tuesday in the Al Neuharth Media Center on The University of South Dakota campus.
The newly refurbished building is headquarters for the fourth annual session of AIJI, which began June 6 and will wrap up on June 25.
AIJI is the largest journalism program of its kind, designed to attract, train and mentor the next generation of Native reporters, editors and photographers.
The four-hour college course is sanctioned through The University of South Dakota Department of Contemporary Media and Journalism.
Decline in perception
Mankiller told the institute participants that she is concerned that the public perception of Native people is on a decline, and that may ultimately have an impact on tribal authority.
"I see public perception of Native people as a sovereignty protection issue," she said, telling the young Institute participants they are the key to positive changes in Native society.
Mankiller has traveled throughout Indian country, meeting with tribal leaders to warn them that there could be a dramatic shift of public policy toward the Native American population in the near future.
She cited the lengthy California governor's race as an example.
"There was a prolonged, sustained attack against tribal governments," Mankiller said. "The end result of that was the tribes didn't fight back in the appropriate way.
"I think all of us in this room have seen, over the past several years, a number of misleading, negative media attacks that have been launched against tribal governments, particularly gaming tribes," she said.
If the attacks are left unanswered, "if none of us responds appropriately," Mankiller said, "it will eventually impact the public perception of all tribal people, and ultimately impact tribal authority,"
Mankiller, 58, is the former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, the second largest tribe in the United States.
First woman chief
She was born in Mankiller Flats near Tahlequah, OK. When she was a child, she and her family were moved to California as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Relocation program.
In 1974, she divorced her husband, with whom she had two daughters, and moved back to her ancestral home. In 1985, she became the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation of
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Oklahoma and the first female in modern history to lead a major Native American tribe.
Mankiller worked with an enrolled population of over 140,000 and an annual budget of more than $75 million.
Her more than 1,200 employees were spread over 7,000 square miles.
Today, she is serving as an activist, hoping to promote reform.
"It's my feeling that there has been an almost imperceptible downward shift in public perception toward Native people as a result of the onslaught of anti-government, anti-gaming articles," Mankiller said. "It's my view that we have to take immediate steps to stop this from becoming a national trend."
Over the course of the last three or four decades, she said, tribal governments have gained control over their own natural resources, their own educational systems and their own judicial systems.
"Yet we have not gained control over our own image," she said.
You'll never convince Mankiller that using a cartoon drawing of a Native American as an athletic team mascot is harmless.
"Perpetuation of negative stereotypes is harmful to children, it's harmful to Native communities and governments, and it is harmful to successful Native businesses," she said. "All Native people are affected by negative stereotyping."
Stripped of identity
Those stereotypes flourish, Mankiller said, because most of the American population knows very little about Native American governments, and their diverse cultures and values.
"Sometimes its seems to me we don't have any identity at all in this country, except the identity created by stereotypes," she said. "The principle reason there are so many negative stereotypes about Native people is very simple. There is a lack of accurate information about Native people either in the mainstream educational system, or in the popular culture, film, books, and press."
The vacuum caused by that shortage of information allows opponents of Native Americans to paint inaccurate and negative portraits of Indian people, communities and government, she said.
Young people's role
The students participating in AIJI, Mankiller said, "have the ability, I believe, to make a dramatic change in the public perception of Native people. We have to tell our own stories."
Native Americans need to expose the general population to stories about tribal history, future, leadership and innovation.
"We need to tell stories about our enterprises, the hospitals we run, the schools and health clinics we operate, and the expansion of tribally controlled colleges," she said.
There has been much attention in recent years on the role played by America's greatest generation during World War II.
"How many Americans realize that, as a population, more Native American people signed up for the military than any other single group in this country?" Mankiller asked. "Nobody knows that story. Those are the stories that we have to tell."
She reminded the AIJI participants of their unique perspective of the world.
"We're not situational tribal people ? I'm Cherokee and I filter what I say to people I meet through Cherokee values," Mankiller said. "We may drive the same cars and wear the same type of clothes, but we have a particular view of the world and value system.
"It is from that perspective that our stories need to be told," she said.
That doesn't mean glossing over problems.
"Outsiders see our people as people who are facing terrible poverty and horrible housing. We know all of that. We deal with that every day," Mankiller said. "The stories we need to tell are those of tenacity, of a people who went through everything that we've gone through historically, and yet we're still standing, and we're still strong because of our culture, our ceremonies, our faith and hope and our optimism."