WILLIAMSBURG, Va. - After 227 years, a delegation from the Cherokee Nation
returned to the Colonial city to commemorate the historic meetings
centuries ago when the Cherokee, referred to as "friends and brethren" by
the Virginia Governor's Council, visited to discuss trade, peace and
The events, held Dec. 4-5, 2004, included a special visit by Wilma
Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Mankiller, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and an inductee
in the Women's Hall of Fame, gave a speech entitled "Context is Everything:
Native American Cultural Survival in the Twenty-First Century" Dec. 4,
2004, at the Bruton Heights School Education Center. The event was part of
the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's American Indian Initiative program,
and the event was sponsored in part by support of the Rockefeller
In her speech, Mankiller outlined many stereotypes and misconceptions
people have about Indian governments, treaties with Indian nations, Indian
culture and Native people.
"Some people today in the 21st century think treaties are no longer valid
because of their age," Mankiller said.
But she added if that were true, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of
Rights wouldn't be valid either.
Another misconception people have, she said, is that all Indian nations are
alike. But Indian nations are very different in membership numbers and
tribal government forms. To illustrate her point, Mankiller explained how
the Onondaga Nation's leaders are selected by the women, a practice that
has continued for thousands of years, but it's a practice that isn't
followed by all Indian nations.
While tribal governments today are strong, she said they face many problems
such as the protection of their sovereignty. But again, this has been a
problem because of people's lack of understanding about Indian nations'
sovereignty, Mankiller said.
While working on her book, "Every Day is a Good Day: Reflections of
Contemporary Indigenous Women", Mankiller said she interviewed tribal women
of many nations, and through this work, she said she has learned that the
body of knowledge the elders carry with them is the largest body of
knowledge in this land "we now call America."
With all of the stereotypes and misunderstandings about American Indians,
she said it is very important for Indians to educate the public about
Indians of today.
"So few Americans understand our history and contemporary lives," Mankiller
And this is why it has been difficult for Indians to protect Native
sovereignty. Indians, she said, are either romanticized or vilified.
"... Because we dress like our neighbors, drive cars like our neighbors,
live in houses like our neighbors, people think we are completely
acculturated," Mankiller said.
Indians have had to learn everything about the larger society around them,
she said, "but they don't know that much about us."
There remain significant numbers of people in the United States who think
that Indians have given up their culture or still dress like they used to,
she said. Sometimes tourists would stop by her office when she was the
Cherokee Nation principle chief and ask her, "'Where are all the Indians? I
came here to see the Indians,'" she said.
To this, she said she responded by telling them the Indians were probably
shopping at Wal-Mart.
Mankiller said there are few other people in the world that have been
exposed to the long-term, relentless attempts at assimilation that Indians
have experienced. And these people who think Indians should give up their
culture are people who are "hard-pressed" to define American culture, she
In the end, she told the audience that she hopes we'll all learn to accept
and respect different cultures. As Indians face the century ahead, they
have many things to be thankful for, Mankiller said - for one, tribal
governments are strong.
"To see the future, you only have to look at the past," said Mankiller,
explaining that she could be optimistic about the future by looking at all
Indian nations had experienced and where they are today.