Woman Warrior Survival School, Madonna Thunder Hawk and Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller
Because of women like them, the culture within is changing too. This is where it begins and young men and women are hearing the call to be more, that they hold they keys of change with their voices and their votes. Another Woman Warrior I have featured is Winona LaDuke, water warrior. They know the way forward to a gentler earth.
Meet Madonna Thunder Hawk: the lifelong indigenous human rights activist most recently in the news for her work organizing the NODAPL protests in South Dakota. When I say Madonna has seen it all, it’s no hyperbole. She grew up in a pastoral Lakota setting as a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux back when water was clean, and children foraged for wild berries and sweet onions on the Missouri River’s banks. Until the government flooded out their land, forcibly relocated the tribe and changed their lives for the worse, a phenomenon that has only intensified in the decades since.
In the 1970s, with the swagger of unapologetic Indianness, organizers of the American Indian Movement (AIM) fought for Native liberation and survival as a community of extended families.
Warrior Women is the story of Madonna Thunder Hawk, one such AIM leader who shaped a kindred group of activists’ children – including her daughter Marcy – into the “We Will Remember” Survival School as a Native alternative to government-run education. Together, Madonna and Marcy fought for Native rights in an environment that made them more comrades than mother-daughter. Today, with Marcy now a mother herself, both are still at the forefront of Native issues, fighting against the environmental devastation of the Dakota Access Pipeline and for Indigenous cultural values.
Through a circular Indigenous style of storytelling, this film explores what it means to navigate a movement and motherhood and how activist legacies are passed down and transformed from generation to generation in the context of colonizing government that meets Native resistance with violence.
Dakota Woman Warrior, South Dakota.
Together, they weathered some of the most turbulent battles for Native sovereignty in the modern era: Thunder Hawk as an activist and mother, Marcy as a teenager growing into a young woman while sharing her mother with a movement that was bigger than either of them. Thunder Hawk lived through a time when Natives were ashamed to be themselves and violently pressured to conform to white culture or punished for holding on to what little Native identity they had left. She did not want her children to live through a continuation of that history.
Now, forty years later, Madonna is moving into the twilight of her life, fighting the inevitable slowing she dreads. She constantly worries aloud who she will “pass the torch” to. Warrior Women unveils not only the women’s perspective on history, but also real-life activism echoing far beyond news events into generations to come.
Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee Chief
Born: November 18, 1945 – died April 6, 2010
Native American community activist, tribal chief, and tribal legislator
I have featured Chief Mankiller before in the Gloria Steinman Post, as they were comrades in the work they did in women’s rights. Wilma Mankiller was the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. She worked to improve the lives of Native Americans by helping them receive better education and health care and urged them to preserve and take pride in their traditions.
Wilma was a product of the “Trail of Tears” relocation and had her own longing when her father moved the family to California and to the BIA broken promises. After receiving her education and divorcing her not so supportive husband, Wilma, returned to her ancestral home in Oklahoma for the burial of her father who died of kidney disease. She found a job as a community coordinator in the Cherokee tribal headquarters and enrolled in graduate courses at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville
In 1983 Ross Swimmer (1943–), then principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, asked Mankiller to be his deputy chief in the election. While campaigning she was surprised by the criticism she received—not for her stand on any particular issue, but simply because she was a woman. Swimmer and Mankiller won the election and took office in August. On December 5, 1985, Swimmer was nominated to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. Mankiller was sworn in to replace him as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. She focused on education and health care, overseeing the construction of new schools, job-training centers, and health clinics.
Mankiller overcame many tragedies and health challenges to become a guiding power for the Cherokee people of Oklahoma and a symbol of achievement for women everywhere. Throughout her life, Mankiller managed to not complain about how bad things were for herself, for her people, and for Native Americans in general. She instead worked to help make life better. Although she declined to seek another term as principal chief in 1995 for health reasons, she remained in the public eye, writing and giving lectures across the country. She stressed that if all the Native Americans who were eligible to vote actually did so, officials elected with those votes would be forced to address the problems of Native Americans. And just this past November they did show up and helped turn their district BLUE in Arizona with the highest voter turnout ever! She also called for an end to the increasing problem of violence against women. Mankiller was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in New York City in 1994 and was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-president Bill Clinton (1946–) in 1998.