Former Cherokee chief reflects on tribal giving

by Brian Kushida

When someone celebrates his or her own birthday in many American Indian communities, the celebrant gives presents to friends and family.

The redistribution of wealth goes beyond holidays as American Indians support one another in everyday life, and attempt to foster a strong sense of community among many tribes.

Former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller gave her time to students and community members Friday at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs to remind them about the importance of supporting each other through active involvement.

“Generosity of spirit and strong sense of interdependence and reciprocity defines us as a people,” Mankiller, who was the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995, said.

The profound difference between society and American Indian communities, she said, is that American Indians accumulate possessions to give one another.

Native communities offer gifts that fulfill basic needs of their friends and family, Mankiller said.

“We’re responsible for the people in our community and they’re responsible for us,” she said.

Health sciences junior Debra Brandenburg, who attended the speech, said she doesn’t want to lose sight of the American Indian cultural circle after she graduates from the University as a proud alumna.

“I’ll still come over here and support the programs and the students,” said Brandenburg, who is part American Indian.

Most Cherokee people live in Eastern Oklahoma after being forcibly removed from Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama by the U.S. government in the 1830s, Mankiller said.

Almost one-fourth of the Cherokee tribe died while being held in encampments before the move or during the course of the removal, she said.

“We left everything we had ever known: our land, our political system, our social system,” Mankiller said.

Many Cherokee people continually support each other in difficult socioeconomic situations.

“We wouldn’t have survived all of these years if had we not been giving to people,” said Cherokee Nation Tribal Council Member Phyllis Yargee.

Looking out for each other has long been a part of American Indian life.

“You couldn’t sleep at night knowing that there might be another family that didn’t have wood, or didn’t have their basic needs met,” she said.

Other American Indians who attended the speech agreed with Mankiller’s notion of openhandedness among each other.

“We’re always giving, we’re always thinking about our family,” said Valerie Lafave of the Golden Eagle Youth Program, an after-school organization that reaches out to American Indian youth.

“It’s a natural thing that Native Americans do,” she said.

Mankiller’s speech at the Humphrey Institute coincided with an American Indian benefit dinner, which took place later that night at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.