Mankiller speaks for indigenous cultures

By on November 4, 2008

Former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller spoke to Quinnipiac students, faculty, alumni and others in Alumni Hall on Oct. 28 to address rights of indigenous people around the world. Her speech closed out the day-long conference, “The Declaration of Human Rights 60 Years Later: A Look at Indigenous and Gender Issues.”

Mankiller became the first female chief in the history of the Cherokee Nation when she was elected as deputy chief in 1985. She was then elected principal chief in 1987, holding tenure in office for two terms up until 1995. She has accumulated numerous awards in her lifetime, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, which is the highest award given to a U.S. civilian, and election to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Director of Community Service Vincent Cotrucci introduced her before the speech, saying, “tenacity, service, and belief are three qualities that describe Chief Wilma Mankiller.”

Mankiller said there are presently 300 million indigenous people all over the world, many with large differences that set them apart. This diversity challenges the misconception by many that all tribal communities are the same. However, she said they all have their own customs which bring each group together. The main bond is a respect for the earth, and the resources it brings forth. Mankiller said indigenous people celebrate the earth through two ways: stories passed on through generations and tribal ceremonies.

“These ceremonies remind us of our responsibilities to each other and our land,” Mankiller said. She pointed out that The Hopi tribe predicted the world would end if humans didn’t take it upon themselves to take care of the earth’s resources. In addition, she said many environmentalists focus exclusively on the land they are trying to save while overlooking the people who live there.

Mankiller’s tenure as principal chief helped revitalize much of the perception of the Cherokee Nation, particularly for the women involved. Beforehand, even some inside the tribe had been opposed to being led by a woman.

“Stereotypes about indigenous women are particularly appalling. In the media, the power, strength, and complexity is rarely recognized,” Mankiller said.

Mankiller said indigenous people always have to reinvent themselves due to the changes constantly around them. According to her, the biggest task in the 21st century will be creating a practical model to communicate to newer generations of tribal people.

“If we as a people have been able to lose such a staggering amount of land, resources. and we’re still standing. how can I not be optimistic about the future? We’re prepared for the future and [indigenous people] have proved time and time again we can adapt to change,” she said.

Last year, after a thirty year wait, the United Nations passed a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, outlawing discrimination against them while aiming to improve their development. Notably, the U.S. was one of four nations that voted against the declaration’s passage.

When discussing the future of the Cherokee Nation in response to this, Mankiller said, “We simply as a people do better when we have control of our own destiny.”


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