Indian Identity, Transformation, Continuity and Resilience


Wilma Mankiller (1045-2010), Chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995, gave a speech at Sonoma State University in 2008, in which she spoke about the misconceptions held by many in mainstream society, of Native American Peoples.  She provided a brief review of American history in order to help clear up common misconceptions of Indian identity, transformation, continuity and resilience.

Folks in mainstream U.S. culture sometimes think of Indians as a cultural relic of the past, as rather an artifact or as people in need of ‘advancement’.  Mankiller spoke of the importance of context, such as time and place, in relation to understanding Native American Peoples. Native American Peoples are diverse groups of people still living who enjoy modern lifestyles.

Clearing up the common misconception of a singular ‘Indian’ identity, Chief Mankiller discussed some of the 550 plus tribal groups, speaking of their distinct political structures, their unique histories, languages, beliefs, customs and ceremonies. Many in mainstream U.S. culture are unaware of the cultural and historical complexity of Native American societies.

Mankiller provided her audience context for understanding Native Americans living today with a brief discourse on Indian Nation and U.S. relations. She pointed out that many people in mainstream U.S. society do not know the full details of American history, including the Native American perspective, whereas Native Americans have been compelled to learn and adapt to the dominant culture’s perspective and lifestyle. Ignorance about both the history and the current reality relative to Native American people can lead to the misunderstanding of the issues with which Native Americans currently struggle.

Native Americans embrace and hold onto their unique cultural heritage while they also work to adapt to the dominant culture. Sometimes adjusting is difficult, but Mankiller spoke of maintaining a positive attitude as key to living a happy and productive life. She stressed that it is important to remain positively focused because, as she said, “It is hard to see the future with tears in your eyes or anger in your heart (Mankiller).”  Thus, Chief Mankiller showed us that Native Americans are a resilient people; they find positive ways to adapt to change.

In this speech, Chief Wilma Mankiller demonstrated for the audience that Native Americans, are a resilient, living modern people who are adapting to their new circumstances while at the same time they embrace their unique cultural heritages and lifestyles.

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