Mankiller Exemplifies True Leadership

May 15th, 2009 | By | Category: 20-4: Tribal College Leadership and Vision
By Carrie Billy, J.D.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Wilma Mankiller speak about her remarkable journey of leadership. She was the first woman elected to serve as deputy chief and then principal chief – twice – of the Cherokee Nation. Her story is a spiritual and inspiring one.

With humor and grace, Mankiller reminded us that the Cherokee had always been a matriarchal society. In the old days, she said, women elders were well respected and were sought out for advice on major tribal decisions. There was a balance, back then, which kept the tribe strong.

Yet when she ran for office in the mid-1970s, gender became the dominant issue. Running a campaign focused on the real issues important to her people, Mankiller overcame attacks based solely on her gender.

Mankiller went on to become one of the most well-respected tribal leaders in Indian Country. Yet, it still frustrates her that political opponents waged a campaign of gender, rather than focusing on tribal needs and strategies for a stronger future. It’s clear why she is passionate about her obligation to mentor girls and women to seek and excel in leadership positions.

Mankiller exemplifies two qualities that I believe define true leaders: (1) Purpose: a passionate and unwavering commitment to an ideal; and (2) Vision for Others: an ability to see beyond self, personal gain, roadblocks and challenges, and to imagine a better world and – most important – pathways for getting there. Without unwavering commitments to her culture and her people over her self, Mankiller would not be the great leader that she is. And we would be the poorer for it.

The Tribal College Movement has many women leaders who, like Mankiller, share these important qualities. In fact, with 18 women presidents or acting presidents out of 37, tribal colleges have a much higher percentage than any other group of higher education institutions. That is balance, and it is good. This edition of the Tribal College Journal discusses some of our leaders and some who are learning from them. We are fortunate to have so many inspiring role models who remind us daily that we can accomplish anything, guided by the stories and songs of our elders and focused on our vision for a stronger and more hopeful future.

In closing, I renew my call for leadership on the national level. In the last edition of TCJ, I urged President Obama and the new Congress to lead a long overdue national effort to end the objectification of Native people and cultures through the use of team mascots, logos, and nicknames. I did not hear from any of them, but I am not giving up.

The mascot issue divides communities, perpetuates stereotypes, undermines the educational experience of all children and youth, and detracts from the fundamental goal of our nation’s education system: to educate our young people – all of our young people.

It is time for leadership. If Wilma Mankiller was president, I bet she would get it done. Let’s do it together.


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