DAVE DAVIES, host:
Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to be elected chief of a major Indian tribe, died yesterday of cancer at her home in Oklahoma. She was 64. From 1985 to '95, Mankiller was chief of the Cherokee Nation, the second largest tribe in the U.S., with 290,000 members. She was known for her efforts to improve the tribe's health, education and housing programs.
Mankiller was born into rural poverty in Oklahoma, but her family moved to San Francisco when she was 11, and her father became a union organizer. She got an education and became an activist in Native American issues.
Terry spoke to Wilma Mankiller in 1993, when her memoir, called "Mankiller," was just published. They began by talking about her name, which some people assumed was some kind of feminist joke.
Ms. WILMA MANKILLER (Chief, Cherokee Nation; Author): Mankiller was actually originally like a - it was almost like a military title. It was a -given to someone who was kind of like a guardian of semi-autonomous villages that were scattered throughout the Southeast. And this one fellow liked the title, Mankiller, quite well, and he kept it for his name and that's who we trace our ancestry back to. So it's my family name.
GROSS: Has that name given you a lot of trouble because of misinterpretations over the years?
Ms. MANKILLER: I think that it surprises people because of the name. I'm fairly softspoken and people, sort of, have an image of what a woman named Mankiller would be like, and I don't think that I really fit their image. And I know it's an unusual name so I, you know, I'm not defensive or offended by people's reaction to it.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Well, your family was uprooted when you were a child, from Oklahoma to California. This was through the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation plan. How did they convince your parents to move?
Ms. MANKILLER: Well, I don't think it was that hard to convince my father, because there were too many children. We were farmers. We farmed both for our own food and also for to market some of our farm products, as well. And there were - in the '50s, in the mid-'50s when the Bureau of Indian Affairs approached my father about relocation - there were too many children and simply not enough to go around.
GROSS: So your father was pretty sure that California would bring a better life?
Ms. MANKILLER: Well, he, you know, he had a vision that it would be a better life for his children. That's basically what the Bureau of Indian Affairs told my family and my father, that there would be a better life for his children and his family in California. And the better life ended up actually being a housing project in San Francisco.
GROSS: Did the Bureau of Indian Affairs take care of you when you got to California, or help you resettle?
Ms. MANKILLER: They helped resettle, but I wouldn't exactly characterize it as taking care of us. We were put on a train in Stilwell, Oklahoma and having left a very rural, isolated community with no electricity and no indoor plumbing, no paved road near our house; and then two days later, ended up in the Tenderloin District in downtown San Francisco, with no kind of orientation at all. We didn't know what to expect.
We couldn't conceptualize a city, because we had never seen one. They facilitated our getting there to California from Oklahoma, but I wouldn't say that they helped us.
GROSS: So, as an 11-year-old girl you went from rural life in Oklahoma, to the San Francisco Tenderloin District - which is the district of prostitution and a lot of alcoholism. Were you frightened when you saw all this? It was so alien to you.
Ms. MANKILLER: I was very frightened. I remember, especially my younger brother Richard and I, trying to figure to what the sound of sirens was. Because you have to imagine that we had never heard sounds like that. So we imagined that the siren was actually some kind of animal and we were trying to figure out what kind of animal it was, and that sort of thing.
And to go to school with children my age and having never used a telephone, or not ever rode a bike or used roller skates, or any of those kinds of things. So it was a tremendous adjustment.
GROSS: Tell us how you got politicized. It was about the time of the Native takeover of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco.
Ms. MANKILLER: For me it was kind of like a watershed. All of sudden, people were articulating things that I had felt but didn't know how to articulate -talking about treaty issues, about providing adequate health care and educational benefits for Native people and that sort of thing. And so right after that, my whole family became involved in the Alcatraz Island occupation.
Right after that I volunteered to work for the Pit River Tribe in California, and worked for them for a number of years as a volunteer - and just sort of got involved in the whole thing.
DAVIES: Wilma Mankiller speaking with Terry Gross in 1993. We'll hear more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're listening to an excerpt of the interview Terry recorded in 1993, with one-time Cherokee Nation Chief, Wilma Mankiller, who was the first woman elected chief of a major Indian tribe. Mankiller died yesterday of cancer.
GROSS: There was a car accident that, you write in your book, changed your life. This was, I believe, in 1979.
Ms. MANKILLER: Right.
GROSS: And you were actually hit by a very close friend of yours. Would you tell us what happened?
Ms. MANKILLER: Well, I don't know what the odds are against something like this happening, but they have to be awfully great. I was in graduate school and I was trying to live on a small scholarship and a graduate fellowship. And so I asked the people at the Cherokee Nation if I could do some contract work.
And so I was driving from my home - took a day off from school - was driving from my home to the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah. And I guess she was in a hurry. She was always, always drove too fast. And there were three cars in a line and she was in a hurry, and she passed these cars and didn't see me coming up a hill.
And so, I guess, we saw each other for a split second, because my car turned a little to the right, and so did hers - to try to avoid one another, we hit one another head-on. And she was killed. And I, you know, had many, many injuries.
And it was very hard for me, because not only was I injured very badly and all that, but I, you know, she - her death had a profound effect on me. I had, for a long time, I guess, survivor's guilt. I didn't know that it was survivor's guilt. But, you know, I felt very, very badly about her death.
In fact, they didn't tell me for about three weeks in the hospital that she had even - that anyone had died, and nor did they tell me that it was Sherry. Her husband would come and see me in the hospital and I'd say, well, where is Sherry? And it was odd that he would come without her.
And then finally one day, I think they decided that eventually I was going to get out of traction and all that and read newspapers, or talk to people and someone would tell me. So they told me about her death.
It was a very - a difficult time for me. And so I - during that period of recovery after the accident, I had a profound change and matured a lot, leveled off a lot.
GROSS: You came very close to death in the car accident. And you write that during that accident you lost any fear of death.
Ms. MANKILLER: Yes, I did. And it's a special gift, I think. Having been so close to death - which, by the way, was the most wonderful feeling I've ever had in my life. It was more profound than childbirth, or better than, you know, the deepest love I've ever had with a man. It was an incredible, unbelievable feeling of unconditional love and very, very tempting to go on to death.
And what kept me I think from going on to death was thoughts of my children somehow or another came in that whole process. And then in a physical sense, there was a nurse straddling me in the ambulance who was beating on me and keeping my attention, and keeping me from slipping away.
But what was going on in my mind, really, was this sort of battle between whether I should just go on with this wonderful feeling or come back. And so it did have an impact on me. It made me not at all afraid of death. And also, I think helped me understand my own insignificance in the totality of things, as well.
GROSS: You weren't feeling any pain after the accident? You were just feeling this warmth and good feeling.
Ms. MANKILLER: No pain at all. No pain at all. I was so far away from physical, you know, my physical self I think at that time, that I wasn't even aware that the woman was, you know, was on top of me trying to keep me alive until someone actually told me later. And so it was just sort of fighting this little battle of whether I should go on with this enormous feeling of universal love.
And, of course, I thought I was the only one who had ever experienced that until I later read books and talked with people who had also gone through the same experience or similar experiences.
GROSS: Do you feel that you made a decision, at some point, to live?
Ms. MANKILLER: Yes, I do think I made a decision. And I don't remember the exact sequence of events, but I remember that my two daughters came into the process, somewhere or another in my mind or during that period of time, and that I probably made a conscious decision to live at that point.
GROSS: Well, that's pretty remarkable you had this car accident, which your whole body was shattered. Your whole face was shattered. And then after that you lost a kidney to kidney disease. You had a form of MS that in which you temporarily lost some nerve control.
It's just amazing to me that after this you were able to become chief to, you know, maintain your energy and focus your energy and be a leader.
Ms. MANKILLER: Well, I think it's actually because of those things that I've been able to be a leader. And in a strange kind of way, sometimes very terrible events can have a positive side-effect. And what those experiences taught me, I think, is that that they taught me to be extremely strong. And they also taught me to look at the larger things in life, rather than focusing on small things.
And it's also awfully, awfully hard to rattle me, truly rattle me after having, you know, faced my own mortality a couple of times. So the things that I learned during those experiences actually enabled me to lead. Without those experiences, I don't think I would have been able to lead. I think I would have been, you know, got caught up in a lot of nonsensical kinds of things.
DAVIES: That was an excerpt of Terry's interview with one-time Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller, recorded in 1993.
Mankiller died yesterday of cancer. She was 64.
You can hear the full interview at our Web site, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of the show.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: On the next FRESH AIR, King of the Swing Fiddle, Johnny Gimble. At the age of 83, he's still swinging and playing. He joins up with Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and others on his new CD "Celebrating with Friends."
(Soundbite of music)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.