Ms. Muse: Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller’s Lost Poems

Ms. Muse is a discovery place for riotous, righteous and resonant feminist poetry that nourishes and gives voice to a rising tide of female resistance—brought to you by Ms. digital columnist Chivas Sandage.


Her name means leader or warrior who guards the village. Before she became the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and the first woman to be chief of a major tribe, Wilma Mankiller published a poem about “the edges of / something called freedom.”

In another poem about listening to the seasons, wolves and a raven, she asks if there are others who can still hear. She writes about remembering “that the sound of a million / colored televisions / has drowned out almost all / echoes of our being.” Longing for freedom—juxtaposed with a dystopian perspective of the modern world and the consequences of living in it—emerge as core subjects in the posthumously published Mankiller Poems: The Lost Poetry of Wilma Mankiller, just out from Pulley Press.

These two poems, part of a group of 10, were published in a 1982 college magazine when Mankiller was in her late 30s. But until now, the world has not known that this great chief, community developer, activist and author also wrote poetry throughout her life. With the support of Charlie Soap, Mankiller’s husband for over 30 years, editors Frances McCue and Greg Shaw found the magazine and nine other poems tucked randomly into boxes of paperwork stored in Mankiller’s old barn in August 2021. They wanted to publish her lost poems to show “how an activist reflected on her life through art and that art itself is activism.”

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When Mankiller’s poems appeared in that slim journal, she was a grant writer, community organizer and a single mother of two teenagers. While she felt deeply connected to her Cherokee culture and ancestry, she had chosen to not be a traditional housewife. She knew strong Cherokee women, but without a female role model to look to, she worked to make her own way, refusing to let her identity be chosen for her, and in the process became a leader of her people and an icon for countless women and girls.

In Mankiller’s poem, “Reality {Again},” the narrator says, “…I care about Cuba, / South Africa, Jemez Pueblo, Navajo, / Bosnia, and Jay, Oklahoma / Some would say / not womanly things to care about.”

Already, she was challenging the definition of what it means to be a woman. But she also knew how to inspire consensus. Notice how she chose the word “care” instead of “think,” the former being uncontroversial for a woman to do in most cultures, and the latter being infamously problematic for half of humanity.  

Born in 1945, she lived the first decade of her life in Oklahoma on Mankiller Flats, an allotment given to her paternal grandfather in 1907 as part of a government program of forced assimilation. Wanting to explore and express her individuality in a large family, Wilma Mankiller began writing poetry around the age of 10.

While her surname signifies a traditional Cherokee military rank, it also inspired schoolyard bullying, which caused her to withdraw into herself. In doing so, she developed an inner strength that she’d later need to endure the challenges she faced as the first woman chief, when people talked about “why a woman was running” instead of the issues at stake.  

At 11, she moved with her family to San Francisco as part of a poorly managed government relocation program. She called the move “my own little Trail of Tears,” referring to the 1830-1850 genocidal forced removal of 60,000 Indigenous people, including her own ancestors. Despite the urban poverty and alienation that she and her family suffered in being separated from their home and community, she grew up in a city where Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix played in the park and the streets swelled with political protests.

San Francisco fed her growing interest in social work as a student and young activist writing poems. From 1969-1971, Indigenous Americans occupied Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, an abandoned island and former home of the notorious federal prison. Citing the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, they protested for Indigenous reclamation of the out-of-use federal land.

Mankiller visited the occupation frequently, which proved to be deeply formative. Reportedly, she was “crucial” to the effort of getting essential supplies to the protestors. She later told the New York Times, “What Alcatraz did for me was, it enabled me to see people who felt like I did but could articulate it much better. We can do something about the fact that treaties are no longer recognized, that there needs to be better education and health care.”

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Wilma Mankiller. (Ilka Hartmann)

After Alcatraz, Mankiller gained more experience with treaty law when she worked on the Pit River Tribe’s legal defense as they successfully reclaimed their ancestral lands from Pacific Gas and Electric. In her poem titled “Oktaha,” she wrote:

from Alcatraz to Pit River to Wounded Knee
from the rich red clay of his homeland
to the streets of San Francisco
hunger for the food of his soul
urges him on

This spiritual hunger is reflected in the poems’ remembering and longing for a time when her people lived in direct connection and communication with the natural world. In contrast, she writes of the city as an existential test for the soul. In “Leaving San Francisco,” morning reveals a city “stripped of the magic of night.” She describes that dystopia, remembering:

“the lost children
skinny junkies looking for a fix
wasted young warriors searching for
an alternative that doesn’t exist
hopeless elders in lobbies of ancient, 
damp hotels…”

To understand what “freedom” meant to Wilma Mankiller, consider how, in an early draft of “Beginnings of a Song,” she wrote about “looking for a sign / that freedom is not lost / to all mankind.” In another version (which appears in the book), she wrote “looking for a sign / That the old medicine is not lost / to all mankind.”

In her lost poems, the traditional ways of Mankiller’s people infuse life with “old medicine” and weave throughout the book, such as in “The Blues,” where the narrator hopes for dreams to “…rise / like the sweet smell of cedar / to touch the sleepless mind.”

The word “ancient” appears six times in the lost poems, including references to ancient secrets, a spring, nectar, and “the time of the ancients.” Repeatedly, the poems speak of an aching homesickness, as in “Comfort”:

and I did, once, long ago
drink the ancient nectar
of an autumn moon
used to live down by the river…

The narrator begins and ends the poem “locked” in modern life and feeling a distance from self.

Love letters to the natural world, the poems seek respite from modern life with its “daily routine.” The narrators in her poems are inspired by mystery, “the fruits of love,” and secrets, most notably “the secret of the Redbirds”—a riddle that is never answered in the poems. Mankiller also writes about the dark side of relationship with self. Consider the lines:

urging me to go on until I can
	find the lies of my own making and 
	battle them in moonlit meadows

In “Waiting for May,” the narrator remembers “just why we are here” when their “feet touch the dirt / of the Earth’s calm ways.” Once again, the world that man did not make proves to be old medicine.

At the age of 30, Mankiller escaped the city and moved back to her family’s allotment in Oklahoma, where she began working for the Cherokee Nation in community development. Within seven years, she became deputy chief despite the extraordinary challenge of being the first woman to run. The sexism and misogyny she faced sometimes escalated to slashed tires and death threats. But she’d already survived a tragic car accident that almost killed her and took a friend’s life. She said, “I’d lost the fear of death and the fear of the challenges in my life.” In 1985, she became principal chief.

In a just country, she would have been elected president.

Gloria Steinem
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Wilma Mankiller. (Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society)

In Mankiller Poems, editor Mark Trahant’s commentary notes that Mankiller once spoke of how her people asked the first U.S. treaty negotiation team, “Where are your women?” Traditionally, Cherokee women were included in negotiations. Trahant writes, “How could you negotiate anything with only half of your people or half of a way of thinking? The logic is flawed: How can any society negotiate (or govern) with only half its people, half its logic, half of its humanity?”

Wilma Mankiller once said, “I can eliminate any stereotypes about what a chief looks like.” During the 10 years that she governed her sovereign nation of 170,000 (by the end of her tenure), she transformed Cherokee tribal government and improved health care, education and housing while establishing new revenue streams, jobs and financial self-governance.

She would later write, “By the time I left office in 1995 … there were fewer questions about whether or not women should be in leadership positions in the Cherokee Nation. If people opposed me, it was because they disagreed with my policies, not just because I am female.” With a laugh, she told the Washington Post that the young girls in her tribe “have never known a male chief” and think having a woman as chief “is the natural order of things.”

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Wilma Mankiller was featured in Ms.’s January 1988 issue as one of its Women of the Year.

In 1987, Ms. magazine named Mankiller one of its Women of the Year. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. In Valerie Red-Horse Mohl’s documentary film, Mankiller, Gloria Steinem said, “In a just country, she would have been elected president.”

Mankiller met Steinem when she joined the board of the Ms. Foundation for Women. The two women shared a close friendship as “chosen family” for 25 years. As a birthday gift one year, Mankiller wrote the poem, “I Want to Be Reincarnated as Gloria Steinem,” part sisterly love letter and part manifesto. After 66 years of being happily unmarried, Steinem told Mankiller that she wanted an “equal marriage,” like Wilma’s relationship with Charlie. In 2000, Steinem married human rights activist David Bale at the home of Mankiller and Soap at dawn.

Always a leader, always thinking of others, in 2010, one month before Wilma Mankiller died of pancreatic cancer, she wrote a news release to comfort her wide circle of friends, sharing that she was “mentally and spiritually prepared for this journey.” Gloria Steinem asked and received permission to someday be buried next to Wilma. After Mankiller’s death, Steinem said: “Ancient traditions call for setting signal fires to light the way home for a great one; fires were lit in 23 countries after Wilma’s death. The millions she touched will continue her work, but I will miss her every day of my life.”

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Wilma Mankiller, Charlie Soap and Gloria Steinem. (Courtesy of Kristina Kiehl)

Mankiller’s poem, “Smoke Signals,” speaks of “a time when messages / had to be sent long distances.” The narrator describes how the smoke “carried messages along the wind / sometimes even to the heavens…” However, the narrator dryly notes that today “no one can read them anymore.”

Twelve years after her death, Wilma Mankiller’s lost poems are smoke signals rising in the wind.

The poems teach the reader how to read them, “how to / accept the friendship of the wind / or love deeply and radically.” The lost poems sing of how to seek out the old medicine of the natural world to discover, again and again throughout our lives, another kind of freedom.

Ms. Muse: A Call for Poems

Please spread the word to poets who identify as women, or have in their past: Ms. Muse seeks poems about the lived experience of being a woman and/or girl. This is a call for sensory, image-rich writing that reflects women’s lives. I’m very open to poets who write from intersectional perspectives, including poets writing about having been or becoming female-identified.  

Email 1-5 poems in the body of your email, including your name, pronouns, and contact information to [email protected]. Selections are made based entirely on work submitted—no letter or bio needed. Simultaneous submissions are fine. Previously published poems from books with modest print runs (like most collections of poetry) are fine, but the poem must not appear elsewhere on the internet.

Ms. Muse poets retain full rights to their poem(s) for republishing elsewhere. We will promote you and your work to the millions of readers connected via our website, social media and email digest. Contributors will receive a one-year subscription to Ms.

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About

Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms., winner of the 2021 Claire Keyes Poetry Award, and author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the Foreword Book of the Year Award in poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in the Texas Observer, The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review, and the print version of Ms. Magazine, among others. Her debut nonfiction book is forthcoming from the University of Texas Press. Ms. Muse, her column, features contemporary feminist poets and essays on the intersection of poetry, politics, and our lives. Follow her on Twitter: @ChivasSandage.