Friday, October 28, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Wilma Mankiller on rebuilding the Cherokee Nation

Wilma Pearl Mankiller became the first female chief of the modern Cherokee Nation after a life's journey that was familiar to many Native Americans. The second half of her childhood and her early days as a wife and mother were spent in San Francisco, where her family had lived since 1956, after leaving Oklahoma in the Indian Relocation Program. But she was unhappy in the city, and her participation in the 1969 American Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island was the spark that led her back home. (You can listen to Mankiller describe these events at the Voices of Oklahoma oral history website.)

Mankiller returned to Oklahoma newly divorced with two children, and most of the family's belongings stashed in her car. She took an entry-level job with the nation, but rose quickly within the leadership on the strength of her organizing and community outreach skills. She recalled that some Cherokee thought they would be "the laughing stock of all tribes" with a woman as chief. "I did fairly well in debate in both high school and college," she said, "and it was really interesting because I was unable to even get in a dialogue with people about this issue."

Given her personal history, it's not surprising that Mankiller was best known for her programs to make the Cherokee self-sufficient. It's a theme she discusses in her 1993 speech, "Rebuilding the Cherokee Nation," delivered at an American Indian conference held at Virginia's Sweet Briar college. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Call Me Wilma, Not Chief: In her introduction, Mankiller said that "very, very few people" back home call her "Chief." Many of her speeches start like this, and it's a great way to set the tone for the informal speaking style that follows. The conversational voice she uses--peppered with words like "gonna," "SOB," and "so anyway"--make it easy to settle into her words. It's more story than speech, although her topics are serious and her expertise is evident.
  • The Past is Present: "We had non-Indian friends throughout the South who helped us, who took up our cause and tried to protect the Cherokees and work with us. Some of our friends spent time in jail..." The "we" that Mankiller refers to in these sentences are not the friends that surrounded her in 1993, but the Cherokee of 1838 facing President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal policy. The language lends immediacy to a speech that contains significant chunks of historical background, and allows her to make a smooth transition to the present-day challenges of the Cherokee.
  • Speak for Yourself: In this speech there are numerous examples of Mankiller pushing back against expectations of her as a woman and as a Cherokee. Early in her career, she admits that low self-esteem kept her from speaking up in meetings, and that people said "real hurtful things" during her first run for deputy chief. But Mankiller persisted in her efforts, and she notes that "what caused me to have faith in myself to speak up was that my desire to do something and contribute was stronger than my own fear of speaking up."
One more technique that Mankiller employed during some of her early tribal council meetings was detailed in her Washington Post obituary. When particularly quarrelsome council members kept talking over her in meetings, she consulted a communications expert--and installed a cutoff switch for the council's microphones. Here's video of Mankiller that demonstrates her speaking skill as well as her theme of self-suffiency:



(Freelancer writer Becky Ham researched and wrote this Famous Speech Friday post.)


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