Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

I Did What I Could (1985)

Dec 14, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


    Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo. The names conjure the legendary Native Americans of yesteryear, the era when the buffalo and the teepee dotted the landscape. In 1985, Wilma Mankiller joined the trio as the first principal female chief of the Cherokee Nation.

    Southern writer William Falkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” His words can apply to the 1838 federal government’s removal of the Cherokee people from their homes in the southeast to their forced resettlement to the Indian Territory of latter-day Oklahoma. The victims called the experience Nunna daul Tsuny which  translates to “the trail where we cried” but is mostly referred to as the Trail of Tears.

       The descendant of the displaced was Wilma Pearl Mankiller, (the name originated from a tribal military rank,) born in 1945 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. She was the sixth of eleven children of Charley Mankiller, a full-blooded Cherokee, and the former Clara Irene Sitton, of Dutch-Irish descent, who had become a bride at age fifteen. She christened Wilma as a shortened form of the Dutch name Wilhelmina and Pearl after her maternal grandmother. As a little girl, her family called her Pearl, and the thought of an irritant developing into a precious stone could serve as a metaphor for her life. Wilma spent her early childhood on Mankiller Flats, land deeded to her grandfather as a settlement for forcing him from his ancestral territory. The Mankiller home had no electricity or indoor plumbing; meals consisted of fried squirrel, and the girls’ dresses were sewn from flour sacks. On the three-mile walk to school, white women offered the shoeless children rides accompanied by pitying looks. Their customary comment was, “Bless your little hearts,” and the children nicknamed them the “Bless Your Heart Ladies.” 

      In 1956, The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) -the same bureaucrats who had “relocated” Japanese American during World War II, initiated a program to tempt the Cherokee to move from rural Oklahoma to urban California. Many felt the move was calculated to weaken reservation ties and diffuse the political clout of the tribe. The eleven-year-old Wilma described the move as her personal trail of tears. In her autobiography, Mankiller A Chief and Her People Wilma described the train ride for the journey to the West, “We must have looked like a darker version of the Joad family from John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath.” The vouchers from the BIA for an apartment fell through, and they stayed for two weeks in an old hotel in a district of San Francisco called The Tenderloin. In the night, they saw flashing neon lights and garishly garbed prostitutes. Wilma recalled they had left behind the sounds of roosters, coyotes, and bobcats and instead heard sirens from police cars, ambulances, and fire engines. Wilma, who had never before heard the shrill sound, thought they were the screams of wild animals. Similarly, she was bewildered at the box that swallowed people and delivered new ones. Although she learned about elevators, she took the stairs. She felt alienated at school and especially dreaded roll-call where her name never failed to elicit snickers. Miserable, her mother tried to help by giving her a home permanent that Wilma described as “the most awful” she had ever seen. She recalled, “We had no preparation, no way to conceptualize San Francisco or even a city. We’d never been past the Muskogee State Fair.” Wilma said of the ordeal that the architects of the federal program felt the Native Americans would probably open liquor stores. The stereotype took a hit when Charley became a warehouse worker and a union organizer. In her new city, Wilma felt as if she were on the far side of the moon. 

     As a minority teenager without money, confidence, or self-esteem, Wilma found a sanctuary at the San Francisco Indian Center in the Mission District. However, she felt her escape route was marriage to her Ecuadorian boyfriend who she married at age seventeen in a Reno Chapel.  Wilma Mankiller became Mrs. Hugo Olaya and fell into the role of dutiful housewife and mother to Gina and Felicia.

     Despite Wilma’s domesticity, her latent activist spirit emerged, one aided from living in San Francisco, the epicenter of 1960s radicalism. The shy girl was caught up in spirit of the Vietnam protests, feminism, the Civil Rights Movement. Wilma swapped her lady-like pumps for sandals, her pantsuits for flowing skirts. Unwilling to be the housebound wife expected by her Hispanic husband, Wilma took college courses and became active in the causes that swirled around the city.

     There is an old adage that states the times make the man and an event that occurred in the dying days of a turbulent decade altered Wilma’s journey.  On November 9, 1969, Native Americans travelled to Alcatraz Island, the abandoned federal prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay, to stage a political protest. They claimed the island “in the name of Indians of all tribes,” and during their 19-month occupation, Wilma was a frequent visitor and raised money for their cause. She said of the takeover, “I had felt there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t happy being a traditional housewife. I started listening to what these people were saying. What Alcatraz did for me was, it enabled me to see people who felt like I did but could articulate it much better.” No longer allowing herself to be marginalized, when people snickered at her name, she said that it was actually a well-earned nickname. In an act of rebellion, without asking her husband, she took money from their joint savings account and bought a car-a red Mazda- in a bid for independence. With sadness, she watched the cracks in her marriage widen, “I would look at Hugo and wish I could love him...Not wanting to live a lie led me to the final step.” In 1997, she obtained a divorce and resumed using her Cherokee name. A single mother, without money, she was able to accomplish what those who had endured the Trail of Tears could never do-she returned home to Mankiller Flats. She had   twenty dollars in her purse. When she arrived in  Oklahoma, she said, “I never felt home until I came home. When I came back here, then I began to understand, this is where I belong.”

     Anxious to improve herself, Wilma obtained a degree in social sciences from Flaming Rainbow University, worked a job as a community coordinator in the Cherokee tribal headquarters, and raised her daughters. Her not-a-minute-to-spare-days abruptly halted when, diving on a rural road in the early morning, a car hit her head-on. The other diver, ironically her close friend, died at the scene of the accident. Wilma was barely alive when paramedics extricated her from the wreckage; the impact left her right leg almost severed and shattered her facial bones. When she regained consciousness, she felt death had bathed her in a feeling of love, yet she pulled back from its embrace for the sake of her daughters. Her seventeen operations were agonizing, but left her with a feeling of equanimity, “I knew I’d lost the fear of death and the fear of the challenges in my life.” Post-surgery she had to battle the new health problem of myasthenia gravis and in the future lay a serious kidney disease that required an organ transplant from an older brother. She often had to rely on canes to walk without pain.

        After her convalescence, Wilma returned to her job; her success as a community planner and grant proposal writer caught the attention of Chief Ross Swimmer who nominated her as his deputy chief. When he resigned two years later for a position as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs, she succeeded him as principal chief, thus becoming the first woman to head the country’s second largest tribe. Upon the termination of her term, she campaigned for the position and found gender an impediment.  An opponent, J. B. Dreadfulwater, argued tradition did not allow a woman to lead the tribe. At committee meetings, members said if her election passed their tribe would become a laughingstock. Her tires were slashed, and she was the recipient of death threats. In a tight race, Mankiller prevailed. She received national attention for her work when she became the guiding spirit behind the rehabilitation of Bell, a rural Oklahoma slum she helped turn into a model town. Because of her accomplishments, nobody grumbled when the tribe chose Wilma at the poll. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem-who married in Wilma’s home- stated, “In a just country, she would have been elected president.”  For inspiration, Mankiller turned to her hero, Chief Joseph, the brilliant Nez Perce leader of the 1800s who resisted overwhelming forces of white soldiers before finally making his peace. In 1990, she signed an unprecedented agreement in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs gave the Cherokee direct control over millions of dollars in federal funding, and the following year she served a second term after receiving 82 percent of the vote. As head chieftain, Mankiller headed a government with one full-time deputy chief, a part-time tribal council of 15,200 employees, and a budget of $78 million a year. She stated of her position, “It’s a little like being the CEO of a tiny country and a social worker at the same time.” Despite her prestigious appointment, jokes about her name persisted. She called it a cheap shot when an editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, in a nod to her attendance at Clinton’s economic summit wrote, “Our favorite name on the summit list is Chief Wilma Mankiller, representing the Cherokee Nation, though we hope not a feminist economic priority.”

      What helped Mankiller in her historic role was the support of her family and, since 1986, her second husband, Charlie Soap, a Cherokee community organizer and skilled native dancer. She also knew many traditional dances but claimed her favorite dancing song was Aretha Franklins’s “Respect-” the title a nod to what she had fought for all her life. The marriage made Wilma a step-mother to Winterhawk, who shared her home. Wilma said in a tribute to her husband who never resented standing in her significant shadow, “He is the most secure male I have ever met.”   

           During her tenure, Wilma took her people’s issues to The White House and met with three presidents. She successfully fought for a 1990 agreement with the federal government to give the tribe autonomy over millions of dollars that allowed them to aspire to self-government; she had well learned the lesson of the Bless Your Heart Ladies. Post- retirement, she was a guest professor at Dartmouth College, President Bill Clinton awarded Ms. Mankiller the Medal of Freedom, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame inducted her as a member. Despite all her lofty accomplishments, one of which she was most proud was revealed in her comment, “Some high school girls have never known a male chief. They think this is the natural order of things.”

     Death finally embraced Wilma when she succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2010. Ancient tribal traditions call for the setting of signal fires to light the way home for a great one whose spirit had passed; fires were lit in twenty-three countries. The indefatigable activist made good on her aspiration, “I hope that when I leave it will just be said: I did what I could.”