Wilma Mankiller Reflects on Columbus Day Columbus Day is traditionally marked by going to parades that honor the man credited with "discovering" America. But for Native Americans, whose ancestors were displaced and marginalized by the European journey to this continent, it's a day of somber reflection or even mourning.

Wilma Mankiller Reflects on Columbus Day

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/95622629/95622625" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, many of us think of lynching a something that belongs to the distant past. But for his latest documentary premiering tonight, veteran journalist Ted Koppel investigates a lynching that took place in 1981.

He'll tell us about it in just a few minutes, but first, it's Columbus Day. And, if you have the day off, you maybe catching up on sleep, errands, or time with loved ones. Some people mark Columbus Day by going to parades that honor the man, who school children have longed been taught discovered America.

But not everyone is celebrating. For people who trace their ancestry to those displaced and marginalized by European journey to this continent, this is a day of somber reflection, even mourning. Joining us to talk about this, as well as whatever else is on her mind is Wilma Mankiller.

She was the first woman to become chief of the Cherokee Nation. She's a long-time activist and advocate for Native American rights and human rights. Wilma Mankiller, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. WILMA MANKILLER (Chief, Cherokee Nation; Activist, Native American Rights): Thank you. I'm very happy to be here.

MARTIN: You know, I think so much of how Americans view Columbus Day is still based on what we learned in elementary school. I still remember that rhyme, in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Do you remember how you were taught about this day?

Ms. MANKILLER: You know, I was taught the same way others students are. That Columbus discovered America. And, all students enter maybe I think it's about the third grade, when you start learning about American history.

And you know, we learned that there was this great, new world discovered by Columbus, with beautiful oceans, and bodies of water, and abundant forest, and food stuffs. Well, you know, it certainly wasn't a new world to the millions of people that had lived here for thousands of years, and there's no discussion of that at all.

MARTIN: Do you remember that being sort of a crisis for you? Do you know how there's a point at which the reality that you know, and what you have either learned either through ancestors or through your own research kind of bumps up against the narrative that you were presented? Do you remember when that happened for you? And was that a crisis for you?

Ms. MANKILLER: I think it probably happened to me in 1969. We were living in San Francisco at that time. You know, I think it was the first time I heard the story that the Iroquois Confederacy, which is a kind of a international group, was founded before Columbus arrived.

So, I began to think about what existed in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus, and others who claimed to have discovered our lands. So, I think probably that period of activism in the late 1960s was sort of the watershed moment for me, when I realized how unfortunate it was that most Americans who have been living in our, you know, towns and villages for hundreds of years, know so little about us.

MARTIN: Do you think that the basic-American narrative that's been taught about Columbus has evolved over the years, because this had been I think, I would argue - I don't know, if you agree?

But since that time, since the period of Native American activism, a lot of Americans became interested in, you know, first peoples, and what their lives and experiences have been. So do you think that the narrative's changed over time?

Ms. MANKILLER: I think it's evolved somewhat, and I wish I could say that it had evolved more. I think that in virtually every sector of society, native people, whether they're in tribal government or whether they're in the private sector or an artist, they encounter people everyday who have such enormously stupid, ridiculous, stereotypes about native people, and have so little accurate information about either the history of native people or their contemporary lives.

And so, all of us who are active in our communities and active in the country, and engage with the lot of people every time we get together, our native people, we talk about that, what kind of stupid questions were you asked recently? What we can do? Do we need to do more forums? Do we need to have more native journalist?

Do we have to create more native films? What can we do to change this? And actually, all those things are being done. So, I'm guardedly optimistic that it will change in the future.

MARTIN: Can I ask you what stupid questioned you've been asked lately? Hopefully not right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MANKILLER: Well, I can't think of one I've been asked lately, but I remember one time a reporter with an English accent - very clip English accent, called me at my home in rural Oklahoma and asked me if I rode horse to work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MANKILLER: So - and I thought, you know what, I'm just going to take this guy for a ride.

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

Ms. MANKILLER: So I told him, yes, I did. I rode a horse to work. I described the horse. And I said, my husband and I live in a tepee along the edge of a river, and he fished and hunted everyday, and this guy was writing the stuff down.

MARTIN: Oh, my. But on the other hand, how do you respond to those who say that the desire to explore other worlds is also human, and that Columbus can't be blamed for what happened after?

Ms. MANKILLER: Well, I think that obviously the desire to explore a new world is human. I'm not sure the desire to conquer other land is necessarily the best human attribute, or to kill indigenous people and exploit their natural resources is a human attribute that many of us would find very admirable.

MARTIN: How do you think we should talk about Columbus Day?

Ms. MANKILLER: I think in a balanced view. And I really think that Columbus Day can be used as a - just as you're doing. It can be used as an opportunity to have a conversation, and to provide a little more education to people about the indigenous people that were here before Columbus.

And to give - make sure that American's have some sort of historical and cultural context for understanding our contemporary issues. It's really hard to understand contemporary Native American issues if you have no historical or cultural context. So I think that Columbus can be discuss in a balanced way, and it can provide an enormous opportunity for education for conversations.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with activist, Wilma Mankiller, the first, female chief of the Cherokee Nation.

After our conversation, I'm going to speak with journalist, Ted Koppel, about a new documentary that he's presenting about lynching. And I know that some of the response that we're going to get is, get over it. And this is…


MARTIN: Yeah. And so - and of course, this is a conversation that happens both within communities, and outside of communities, and among communities. You know, within the communities some leaders would say, well, you know, is focusing on the painful history and victimization really the best idea?

This is distracting. It's harmful. Does this kind of conversation also go on, I think, among Native Americans at a time like this, when we're thinking about a painful history?

Ms. MANKILLER: It does go on. But I think that whether it's family history, or political history, or a history of what I would characterize genocide, I think that you have to acknowledge it. I think you have to acknowledge it, and talk about it in order to move forward in a good way together as human beings.

But to hide it, or pretend it doesn't exist is not a good idea. I don't think that necessarily means that we need to go around everyday with anger in our hearts and about what happened to us historically. I think - but I think it's important to acknowledge it, and think about it.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk a little bit about a big issue going on today, which is the presidential race. Are there specific issues that are particularly important to Native Americans that we should be thinking about in the context of this election?

Ms. MANKILLER: I think that there are a couple of issues that I think that most tribal organizations, and governments, and communities would agree one. One is to make sure that the next President recognizes the government-to-government relationship between tribal governments and the United States Government, recognizes the treaty rights of tribal governments.

And then, another huge issue among many or most tribal governments is health care. It's a national disgrace that 48 million people in this country, many of them children, do not have health care. They can't go to the doctor when they get sick. They can't have chemotherapy, if they're diagnosed with cancers.

So I would say health care and tribal-treaty rights and sovereignty would be the two big issues.

MARTIN: And I wanted to talk about the fact, as a history maker yourself, that this election has been historic. From the beginning to end, there was Hilary Clinton whom you initially - you endorsed, was in the hunt to become the Democratic nominee. We've got the first African-American potentially to become the president of the United States, we've got the first woman, well, second woman on a major party ticket, Sarah Palin.

You know, there was a conversation about race versus gender, which one is the more compelling factor in American life. As a person who has been a history maker yourself, do you have some thoughts about that?

Ms. MANKILLER: I thought it was a healthy discussion during the Democratic primary, because Obama's brilliant, Hillary was experienced. You know, we had two great candidates. Was it all healthy and helpful? No. But I think, overall, it was a good discussion, and I think that in future elections, from this point forward, we will choose our candidates from a larger pool, a pool that includes women and a pool that includes people of color. And I don't think we'll go back.

MARTIN: We've been talking with a number of writers, thinkers, activists for our series we call "What If," about what a black president would mean for this country, what the election of Barack Obama would mean for this country. What are your thoughts about that?

Ms. MANKILLER: Well, I'm going to tell you something emotional, rather than political. My husband and I visited South Africa three or four years, and for the people in South Africa, it would mean the world.

And then in April, my daughter and I got stranded at the Memphis Airport, and we drove into rural Mississippi where it appeared to me that there were still some degree of segregation, and for the children and the families, African-American children and families I saw in rural Mississippi, it would mean the world to them.

And so, I think that just thinking about the enormous impact it would have on people in places like rural Mississippi or Southern Africa, and other places around the world, is very inspiring to me.

MARTIN: Do you think that it has meaning for other people of color?

Ms. MANKILLER: I do. It certainly does for me. I think that Senator Obama put together a group of well-qualified advisers on native-American policy, and what was clear in their first meeting is that he understood oppression, and he understood what it meant to be a person of color and live from paycheck to paycheck.

So yeah, I do think that it matters. I think that it matters to people who struggle everywhere, not just people of color. I think working people, people who have to figure whether they can go to the doctor or not, or whether they're going to be able to get a small loan to get a new car.

I don't think that it's the most important thing in a presidential race for the person to be someone you have a beer with necessarily, but I think it's important for them to understand somewhat about the lives that most Americans live. I believe that Senator Obama understands that.

MARTIN: Wilma Mankiller is a writer and human-rights activist. She served as a principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to1995. She was the first woman to serve as a principal chief of a major North American tribe. Wilma Mankiller joined from member station KWGS in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MANKILLER: You're quite welcome.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. 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.