First woman chief of a major Native American tribe addresses Morning Forum

The Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller, returned to the Los Altos Morning Forum May 5 to discuss “What It Means to Be an Indigenous Person in the 21st Century.”

President Bill Clinton awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, to Mankiller, the first woman to hold the post in a major tribe, in 1998.

Mankiller served as the Morse Chair Professor of Law and Politics at the University of Oregon and authored “Mankiller: A Chief and Her People” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1989) and “Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections on Contemporary Indigenous Women” (Fulcrum, 2004).

She began the lecture by speaking of the 300 million indigenous people who have a unique history, language, culture and system of governance. These groups face common challenges in their fight to protect their lands, natural resources and cultural practices in the face of different cultures and governments. The battle to protect human and land rights is immeasurably difficult, according to Mankiller, because few people understand the history and culture of indigenous people.

In 2007 the United Nations General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with a majority of 141 votes. The United States, New Zealand, Australia and Canada voted against it and 11 nations abstained. The declaration protects self-determination and treaty rights. Mankiller expects the new administration to reconsider the vote.

If native people become filmmakers, writers, historians, museum curators and journalists, she said, they will change public perceptions using an array of technological tools to tell their stories in their own voices.

With approximately 250,00 members, the Cherokee Nation administers its own judicial system and police force, operates schools and hospitals and manages business enterprises.

The Cherokees established free and compulsory education in1839. Native American enrollment in colleges has doubled in the past 25 years.

Mankiller defined an indigenous person of the 21st century as one who acknowledges past injustice but never allows himself or herself to be paralyzed into inaction by anger about the past or the totality of present-day challenges.

Morning forum is a members-only lecture series held at Los Altos United Methodist Church. For more information, visit