Editor’s note: Frances McCue is co-founder of Pulley Press, which will publish the recently discovered poems of the late Cherokee Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller. Proceeds from the book will benefit the Wilma Mankiller Foundation. This is the story of how the poems were found.
Special to Indian Country Today
We were driving to Mankiller Flats in hopes of finding the lost poems of legendary Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller.
That’s how I ended up at the hottest time of the year — in the blistering 100 degrees of August 2021 — in the back cab of a Silverado pick-up truck, bumping through northeastern Oklahoma, not far from the Arkansas border.
The horizon broke at the foothills of the Ozarks, covered with shade trees. Out there, near the Illinois River, phone signals flatlined. Google Maps coughed up blank spaces without labels.
Community organizer Charlie Soap, Mankiller’s widower, sat in the front seat, and our mutual friend, Greg Shaw, was driving. Charlie and Greg grew up near here, and had been friends for more than 30 years.
They had been writing a book together about Soap’s life when Charlie mentioned the poems.
“I think there’s some poetry in Wilma’s barn,” Charlie told Greg. “And I hope you can find it.”
Greg, who is non-Native, is a former journalist and publisher who got his start as a reporter when he was in college in the 1980s in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation Headquarters. Then he became editor of the Cherokee newspaper for a few years.
I was tagging along because I’m a seasoned poem-chaser, and I’ve followed poets and poems for my whole career. I’d met Greg in Seattle when he provided funding for me to start a poetry press that would celebrate poets from rural places. If Charlie was right, and if we found good poems by Wilma, Greg and I hoped to publish them.
The barn is on the property where the Mankiller ancestors eventually settled after being forced from the American southeast onto the Trail of Tears, and then suffering through the Dawes Act of 1887. That legislation privatized Indian Country into allotments, and President Theodore Roosevelt, in his 1901 State of the Union address, described its creation as “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.”
I think of their resilience as we charge ahead in the Silverado to Wilma’s house.
‘Welcome to Mankiller Flats’
Wilma is a revered figure in these parts, and not only as a tribal chief. Before the 12 years she served as principal chief starting in 1985, she convened her tribe with volunteers from the community to construct an 18-mile water line in a rocky, rugged area of Adair County.
With Charlie’s help, she brought together Cherokee elders, children and anyone else who wanted to help to lay the pipes themselves. She coaxed and worked and inspired a whole community to build their own waterline.
You can see her worry and determination, the seriousness guiding her speech, in the documentary, “Mankiller,” which appeared on PBS. She’s both sturdy and cautious, deeply practical and earthbound. Her traits run in opposition to stereotypes of poets as ethereal.
A 2013 feature film, “The Cherokee Word for Water,” tells the story of the Bell Waterline project, with actors playing the lead roles. The story showcases the concept of Gadugi, of doing things with help and doing them together, a term not unlike collaboration. But Gadugi is warmer and deeper. It’s unambivalent.
“Gadugi has always been there; it comes from the traditional people,” Charlie said. Charlie and Wilma revitalized Gadugi in the places where they worked.
Charlie, too, is an inspiration. Since Wilma’s death in 2010, he’s continued with his own community projects — the Boys and Girls Club where he’s worked to help kids take charge and lead themselves, and on transit and infrastructure projects. He even ran for chief himself in 2015, though he didn’t win.
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He’s a big, handsome guy, a former basketball player, tanned and wearing jeans and a T-shirt with the sleeves partly scissored off.
I scrunch forward from the back seat to hear Charlie and Greg reminiscing about old times at Cherokee Nation Headquarters.
Tahlequah is a town on its way to becoming a rural Greenwich Village, a place where artists and writers, and Cherokee historian Rebecca Nagle, now live. About a half-hour out of town, we drove into Adair County and the road got raw with gravel and bumps.
“Right up here,” Charlie said, pointing to a curve. We slowed around the turn and Charlie motioned us onto a two-rut driveway, the truck swaying to and fro. We passed a house on the left and then we came to a gate.
Through the windshield I saw a big M spread across the metal pipe gate, with two upside-down Vs pulled wide. Mankiller.
Charlie got out and worked a lock to push it open.
We drove onto the property. To our right was a long, gray, single-story house where Charlie and Wilma once lived, now abandoned. Ahead of us was the barn.
“There are poems in that barn,” Greg pointed and smiled. “Yup, that’s where they are going to be.”
My heartbeat was picking up. Pieces of paper in a barn, a sheaf of poems tucked somewhere — that’s what I hoped. Finding something special in a huge expanse, especially in mounds of stuff that hasn’t been sorted, is thrilling to me, like finding the right image or sensory detail, the one that will drive a poem.
Greg turned off the truck. I pushed out of the back cab and stepped into Charlie’s yard. The heat sagged around us.
“Welcome to Mankiller Flats,” Charlie said.
I stood flat-footed in front of the barn.
Prayers for discovery
I had no idea whether Wilma Mankiller was a good poet or even a poet at all, but my eagerness to find something was escalating.
For years, I’ve been chasing literature back to the places that inspired its creation. This is the work I love most: searching for the sources of poems and the patch of earth that they came from. I want to sense that tingle between language and land, where the serrations of landscape move through stanzas and paragraphs.
That’s my stock and trade, sensing where literature meets terrain. I’m interested in what’s underneath the actual text we read; I imagine poems physically resting on the earth.
On this search, I was hunting for poems in the wild, before they were published and connected to particular places. I wanted to find poems from the Cherokee chief and connect her work as an activist to the necessary work of writing poems.
The night before we’d come out there, Charlie and the woman who is now his partner, Kristina Kiehl, had taken our hands, Greg’s and mine, and nodded in a prayer before we started our meal. Charlie sang the grace in Cherokee.
Though I hadn’t been one for shared prayers since my Catholic girlhood, I was touched by this man bowing his head, and I was taken by the music of it. I’d read some of Wilma’s ideas about Cherokee prayers and how they “promote a sense of oneness and unity” in a real way. I felt my mind clear when Charlie said that prayer, and the world of the barn, then imagined, smoothed out in front of me. I felt welcome to what would happen there.
That’s why, when we were standing outside the barn, I asked Charlie to say another prayer that we would find some poems.
“I sure will, Frances. I’d like to do that,” he said. Charlie brought Greg and me over into the shade and we stood, a little trio holding hands, while Charlie’s voice glided along in Cherokee, the sweet melodic flow with our names in it: Greg and Frances popping up like a set of hooks in a smooth sea.
Then, Charlie motioned us to look while he turned to face a copse of trees past the house. He pointed up to one, a sycamore, and said, “The wind moves through that and nothing else. Look, see how the rest is still?”
Greg and I looked at the sycamore and then at each other. The tree was indeed the only tree moving; its leaves were quivering and branches swaying while everything else was still. This was Charlie’s tree, one of the places where he has a connection with his spirituality, something he doesn’t talk much about.
Charlie was singing to the wind through the sycamore tree and the tree was glimmering. The wind moved and rustled those leaves.
Charlie pulled open the big garage door in the front of the barn and a huge puff of dank mist rushed out, overtaking us. We pulled our COVID masks up.
“Moved everything to the barn,” Charlie said. “All that stuff from the house was moldy.”
The mold had worsened after Wilma died of pancreatic cancer in 2010 at age 64, following yearslong struggles with myriad health issues. He stayed in the house a while longer, but finally moved with Kristina to a new place on the river near Tahlequah.
“I never knew how bad mold could be. I think it had something to do with her illness,” Charlie said. “I stayed in that house for some time after she died and it got really bad. I knew I had to move.”
A land of deep memories
As a child, Wilma Mankiller lived on this place, her grandfather’s land, parceled out to him after the Dawes Act in 1887.
As Wilma wrote, the allotment was granted “during the period when Indian Territory was dissolved and Oklahoma became a state, [when] the federal government attempted to destroy the Cherokee Nation by dividing up our commonly held land into individual allotments of 160 acres. The family land was allotted to my grandfather, John (Yona) Mankiller, and passed down to my father, Charley Mankiller, and my Aunt Sally Leach.”
The Mankillers had come to be on this land because, as Cherokees, they were pushed at gunpoint onto the Trail of Tears in 1838. Wilma’s grandfather, John, said that his own parents had been taken from North Carolina and they had been forced to walk, along with the rest of the tribe (about 15,000 people), to Indian Country in Oklahoma. Almost 4,000 Cherokees died.
Wilma ‘s descriptions of this place where I now stood, her childhood home, resonated.
“The Mankiller family land defined who I am,” she wrote in “Every Day is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women,” a 2016 book she co-authored with her friend, Gloria Steinem.
“The land held deep memories of my family and the first 10 years of my life,” she continued. “During my early childhood, my siblings and I gathered water from a cold spring where my grandparents had also stored melons, fresh milk, and butter. We shared that spring with bobcats, mountain lions, wild pigs, and an occasional deer…The banks of the spring were covered with a profusion of watercress and fragrant mint. God surely created the spring with an abundance of love.”
Sadly, they would not stay. In 1956, when Wilma was 11 years old, the government produced yet another culture-destroying disaster, a “relocation plan” to move Native people from tribal communities into cities. Wilma’s family, like many others, was pressured by poor farming conditions and poverty to sign onto the government’s coerced assimilation, and in 1957, Wilma and her family (she was one of 11 children) soon found themselves traveling to San Francisco.
The family disembarked in the Tenderloin District of the city, and there, the Mankillers fell into another version of poverty. Crowded into a room in a residence hotel, they were trying to get by on her father’s minimum wage job. For the Mankillers, these were harsh new realities of city life for people who had never been out of rural Oklahoma.
Wilma lived in the San Francisco area for almost 20 years. During that time, she married, joined Indigenous groups, attended San Francisco State University, participated in the Alcatraz Occupation of 1969, had two daughters and divorced.
She was 31 when she came home to Stilwell, Oklahoma, in 1976 with her teenaged girls, Gina and Felicia. Her grandfather’s house on Mankiller Flats had burned down and the property was overgrown.
In 1983, Wilma was elected to be Principal Chief Ross Swimmer’s deputy chief, the first woman in that role, and when Swimmer moved to Washington, D.C. to become head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under President Ronald Reagan, she became principal chief. She was re-elected twice and remained in that role until 1995. After that, she wrote her bestselling autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, and advocated for her people via public engagements on the national level.
Digging through boxes
Inside the barn, U-Haul boxes slumped in stacks with bars of fluorescent lights overhead.
We walked through the building, around the boxes and mounds of other stuff. In the back, I opened the door to another room, with an even stronger smell of mold. Shelves of sealed-up banker’s boxes filled the place, along with golf clubs and old duffel bags. I could see the head of a trophy, popping up out of a box.
I created a work table with a few plastic bins and shimmied one of the cartons onto it. I found a meat knife and carved into the first box — lots of files — and took out the manila sheathes. Insurance papers, medical documents, old clippings, drafts of speeches. I sweated through my shirt.
Photographs, awards, a file of awards declined, (Wilma Mankiller declined awards!), statues, videotapes. I moved through household records, research on medical conditions and correspondence with conference directors, schedules.
I didn’t want to intrude so I scanned the pages, not taking in content but looking for the white space around what was written, the white space that makes something poetry instead of prose.
Then, I saw something. It wasn’t prose; it didn’t run from margin to margin. It wasn’t from medical materials or book drafts.
It was a poem, typed on onion-skin paper, an original, tucked in a file of schedules.
I read it a few times. From the handwritten marks, I could see that it was a draft, but it felt like a song: grandiose, devastating and tender. It moved along with its rhymes and melancholy. I re-read these lines:
Standing on the edge of twilight,
looking for a sign
Father Thunder comes to talk about
the fall of mankind
“We have one,” I shouted. “A poem!”
Greg yelped and rushed over.
We shared the news with Charlie, who had been out gathering cedar boughs, when we broke for lunch. We were seated around a small bistro table that Charlie had dragged from the barn and set up on a dilapidated basketball court.
“The prayers are being answered,” Charlie said.
That image of the three of us having lunch on that basketball court returned to me again and again. Just before sleep, I conjured it up. It’s what Charlie called Gadugi.
‘Leaving San Francisco’
After lunch, I came across two more poems tucked in between some Ford Foundation board proceedings.
The poems, both about Charlie, were love poems, aspiring towards something larger, “looking for a sign/that the old medicine is not lost/to all mankind.”
I set them on the table and Greg scanned them with his phone.
Hours passed while we shifted around boxes of trophies, awards, photographs and videotapes and pulled out more files.
Greg was the next one to find poems. He yelled and held up a little pamphlet. I looked over Greg’s shoulder at the booklet, “Echoes of Our Being,” by the Tahlequah Indian Writers Group, edited by Robert J. Conley.
Right away, I saw that the anthology was a treasure. It was published in 1982 at Bacone College in Muskogee and the editor, Conley, had been a popular Cherokee novelist. Ten poems in the booklet were by Wilma. Greg pointed to this one in particular.
'Leaving San Francisco'
at night she is like an aging beauty queen —
even her brightest lights do not look tawdry
but in the bright sunny morning,
she shows it all
at night you cannot see
the lost children
skinny junkies looking for a fix
wasted young warriors searching for
an alternative that doesn’t exist
hopeless elders in lobbies of ancient,
but in the morning she shows it all
she looks so old,
stripped of the magic of the night, it’s easy
to see she has been through her prime
and is on the way down
I am not going down with her
“She was writing poems!” I exclaimed.
“Yup, and people are going to get to read them,” Greg said.
As I flipped through the little book, it was the author’s bio of the young Wilma Mankiller that nearly broke my heart:
“Wilma Mankiller, from Stilwell, Oklahoma, is Cherokee. She is 36 years of age, the mother of two teen-age girls and works as a grants writer and community organizer for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in Tahlequah.
Wilma, as one of eleven children, began writing at about age ten as a method of expressing her individuality in a large, lively, creative family. She has always used writing to express feelings and emotions that she found difficult or impossible to express verbally.
Besides poetry, she writes essays and has an interest in writing short stories.”
So, Wilma, before she became chief, was a poet. This chase to find and bring her poems into visibility, running them out from Mankiller Flats to a bigger audience, was turning out to be really important.
The poems shine a light on what’s behind Wilma, the activist. This was the woman who became chief and reinvigorated the Cherokees’ faith in themselves.
Was it the poems that gave her some of that power?
A day’s work
It was the end of that first day when I found a trove of letters from Gloria Steinem. They were dispersed in several boxes: typewritten letters, handwritten edits and through all of them, you can see Steinem’s affection for Mankiller, and Mankiller’s for Steinem. Wilma’s friendship with Gloria created a personal connection to a new world of writing and activism. That friendship is depicted in the films “The Glorias,” “Mankiller” and “The Cherokee Word for Water.”
In some of the papers, I found letters regarding Mankiller’s receipt of the Medal of Freedom, letters from Bill Clinton and other former presidents. She’d been around politicians aplenty.
Still, the more material I went through, the more I realized how much she admired writers. I found an early pamphlet, by Leslie Marmon Silko, who wrote the 1977 novel, “Ceremony,” and a copy of “Riding the Earthboy Forty,” by James Welch, a writer I’d known and loved. It was the only book of poems that he ever wrote. Welch went on to become a novelist and nonfiction writer, best known for “Fools Crow” and “Winter in the Blood.” He had been a kid from the Blackfeet Reservation who found his way down from Browning to Missoula where he enrolled in a college course with Richard Hugo, a poet whose work I’d once chased.
It was late afternoon when we finally called it a day. Charlie was tired, and Greg and I were sweaty, dusty and insect-bitten. We drove back to have dinner with Charlie and Kristina, overlooking the Illinois River. Outside, the light turned golden over the river.
We’d collected 19 poems. Later, Kristina called with one more, a birthday poem that Wilma had written to Gloria Steinem.
In my dreams, the poems lift and flutter from haystacks in that barn. They waft up from straw and the fluff of mice nests. I retrieve them and pin each to a clothesline. Charlie and Wilma and Kristina pull on the line from over near their house, sending the poems to the coast where Greg and I live, helping the poems make their way.
The new poetry publishing venture, we decided, would be called Pulley Press.
On June 6, in Tahlequah, when the U.S. Treasury releases a new quarter bearing Wilma’s likeness, her poems will be released as well, rolling out across the mountains, plains and cities, into the hands of readers.
It’s called simply, “Mankiller Poems.”
Frances McCue is a literary activist who was the founding director of Richard Hugo House in Seattle for its first decade, and is now the co-founder and founding editor of Pulley Press, a new venture to celebrate poets from rural America. She has written six books: two of prose and four of poetry, from Beacon Press, the University of Washington Press and Factory Hollow Press. She is non-Native, and a teaching professor at the University of Washington.
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