Emory Report

April 3, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 27

Capacity crowd greets Mankiller

By Eric Rangus

The standing-room-only crowd at Cannon Chapel Wednesday night, while primarily female, represented a diverse cross-section of the Emory community. But Wilma Mankiller, the woman everyone came to see, reserved her closing comments for America's white majority.

"We go to your schools, we go to your churches, we read your literature, we see your films. We know everything there is to know about you. You don't know anything about us," said Mankiller, the only women ever elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and the keynote speaker for Emory's Women's History Month celebration. "As people look for models, it would never occur to them to look to native people."

Native American cultures, Mankiller said earlier in her speech, held women in high esteem before the onset of Western culture. There was equity between the sexes, and women took on roles as judges, managers and warriors in addition to leading the family.

Mankiller quoted author Alice Walker, who coined the phrase, "Looking backward toward the future."

"As we contemplate the challenges women face this century," Mankiller said, "we can look backward toward a time when the voices of both men and women were honored. And we can perceive a future when women's rights are recognized as basic human rights."

Mankiller was elected deputy chief in 1983, the first woman to ascend to such a high position within the tribe. She was sworn in as principal chief in 1985 when President Ronald Reagan appointed then-Principal Chief Ross Swimmer head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

After some initial skepticism about her ability to handle the position's responsibilities because she was a woman, Mankiller won widepread acceptance in the tribe. She was re-elected three times, first in 1987, again in 1991--with 83 percent of the vote--and once more in 1995. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Mankiller's speech touched on two primary themes: the global situation of women, and her personal journey growing up in poverty and transforming from a young girl without much self-confidence to woman leading a tribe of more than 140,000.

Mankiller said race, culture, economic status, age and geography all influence the meaning of being a woman in the 21st century. She gave a wide range of examples of women's struggles throughout the world but added that all women are working to achieve a balance between the sexes, a greater voice in business, politics and education, and a world where they are safe from battery and where all women have access to credit, health care and education.

Mankiller said it's clear that women have made great progress globally. That advancement, however, has been slower for women of color.

Like many other Cherokees, Mankiller traces her ancestral roots to Georgia. She was born in Oklahoma and at age 11 moved to San Francisco, where she and her family (she is the sixth of 11 children) lived in a housing project.

"We just wanted to grow up," she said. "There was no one in our community talking about going to college. There no one talking about becoming leaders or having careers."

Mankiller said women of her generation--she was born in 1945--were brought up to raise families rather than assume positions of leadership. The impact of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and '70s (San Francisco was one of its hubs) lit her activist fire. She also found women mentors who encouraged her to go to college.

She said her riskiest act--and also the most important one--was when she changed from the person who would sit in male-dominated meetings and think silently to the one who would stand up and speak out. "Once I crossed that bridge, I never went back," she said.

In her opening comments, Mankiller lauded the Emory campus and commented on the beauty of many of its buildings. "What's a disappointment," she said to applause, "is that the Women's Center is in a trailer."

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