Saturday, April 10, 2010

Wilma Mankiller and My Grandmother

Today (Sat. April 10) thousands of people will gather at an outdoor memorial service for former Cherokee tribal Chief Wilma Mankiller,(above) who died last week at the age of 64 from pancreatic cancer. The service will be held at the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, about 70 miles east of Tulsa.

If anyone deserves to be in the Crone Hall of Fame it’s Wilma Mankiller, who was the first woman to lead a major tribe and the most famous activist on behalf of American Indians. According to her New York Times obituary, she revitalized the Cherokee nation’s tribal government and improved its education, health and housing. She was the Cherokee chief from 1985 to 1995 and during her tenure, the nation’s membership more than doubled, to 170,00 from about 68,000

Wilma Mankiller battled lymphoma and myasthenia gravis, received a kidney transplant from an older brother and survived a head-on automobile collision in 1979 that required 17 operations and years of physical therapy.

She first became famous when Native Americans took over Alcatraz Island and occupied it for 19 months to call attention to the government’s treatment of Indians.

She had two daughters, and after her marriage ended in divorce, she returned with them to live on her grandfather’s land in Oklahoma where she was born—a tract of 160 acres known as Mankiller Flats, where she grew up. During her childhood, her family had no electricity or indoor plumbing.

As the Cherokee nation’s elected leader, Wilma was chief executive of a tribe with a budget that reached $159 million a year. She put her energy and the tribe’s income into health care, job-training and the local schools.

Now about my grandmother – her name was Anna Truan Dobson. She is the young woman in the vintage photo above in the upper row on the right. She grew up in Tennessee with French-speaking Swiss-immigrant parents who had colorful tales of the Civil War. Anna had two college degrees before the turn of the century—a rarity for a Southern woman back then. She was courted by my grandfather, Frederick Fee Dobson, a Presbyterian minister who wanted her to join him in his ministry in Indian Territory Oklahoma, where he was expected to convert the Indians to Christianity and establish churches and schools.

At first Anna Truan turned him down, but eventually she relented and joined him at Tahlequah Institute, Indian Territory, Oklahoma where she is in the photograph above (and where Wilma Mankiller was born and died.) . The information written on the back of the photo says that at the time of her marriage on Jan. 1, 1896, Anna Truan was teaching on the faculty of Tahlequah Institute. She is posing on the “porch of the dormitory” with the other faculty members—the women were her bridesmaids and the man with the mustache was Reverend Hamilton, the minister who married them. (Don’t you love the ladies’ stylish leg ‘o mutton sleeves?)

After Anna was married and began having her nine children (two boys and seven girls!) she continued to teach the Native Americans piano and French, sewing and quilting. We have inherited a large beaded pincushion that the Cherokee women gave my grandmother in appreciation. (I also have a Dresden Plate pattern quilt she made for my mother’s wedding – as she did for each child—and my grandfather, Rev. Frederick Fee Dobson, reportedly sewed one of the quilt squares himself.)

I believe my grandfather was also responsible for producing the first written dictionary of the Cherokee language, but that may just be family legend.

I always admired my grandmother for her beauty and her intellectual curiosity. After her husband died, she traveled and lectured about birds, wild flowers and biblical subjects. Just raising nine children to adulthood back in those days was a phenomenal achievement, but she also found time to keep on researching and learning until she suffered a stroke in her eighties.

Not until my children were in school studying subjects like the Trail of Tears (when Native Americans were forcibly driven from the Southeast U. S. by federal troops during the winter of 1838-39) did I start to suspect that my grandparents may also have been part of the oppression of the native Americans in Oklahoma (although I’m sure their motives were benevolent.)

Looking back with today’s perspective, knowing what we have learned from activists and educators like Wilma Mankiller, I can see that my grandparents, who undoubtedly meant well by carrying their Christian religion and western educational system to the Indian Territory, were also part of the bureaucracy that forced the Native Americans to give up their ancient culture and traditions

I know very well how badly the American Indians were treated by our government. In a future post I’m going to write about a woman called “Lost Bird of Wounded Knee”, an infant found alive under the frozen body of her dead mother four days after the massacre in December 1890. This girl was adopted by the Brigadier General who found her, and then exploited and mistreated by him and others until she died at age 29.

But that’s a story for another day. Today we remember Wilma Mankiller and also my grandmother, Anna Truan Dobson, who died in 1965 at the age of 93. I think they were both brave and resourceful women worthy of the Owl of Athena award for courageous, wise and exemplary cronehood. They both deserve the title of Crone of the Week.


V Fish said...

Those old photos are amazing!

Unknown said...

A great collection of pictures and congratulations on the noble work.

by Joan Gage said...

Thank you both for your kind words.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Gage what if I told you I had a painting that I bought at a Tulsa Auction house quite a few years back that was an abstract of what appears to be Alcatraz signed by Wilma ManKiller? I've been searching high and low for someone to help me authenticate it and have come up empty. Can you assist me?

Anonymous said...

I just left you the ManKiller art comment. My name is Jason and my email is if you can help me. Thanks!