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Wilma Mankiller as Activist

Native American Youth Center: Giving Kids a Chance

One of Wilma Mankiller's first projects was the development of the Native American Youth Center in East Oakland. Using the knowledge gathered from her time at the San Francisco Indian Center, she was able to build up this organization literally from the ground. She discovered the building, got volunteers to help with the painting, formed a school curricula and cultural program, and "opened the doors." The center was targeted to all kids, whether dropouts or those who came at the end of the school day. Mankiller, acting as director, planned and coordinated field trips and visits to tribal functions. The purpose of this organization was to provide a safe place for children to do their homework, hang out with friends, and learn about their Native American heritage and history. Mankiller became especially involved in the identifying of basic educational needs. She helped to persuade a young Native American girl to return to school by offering her support, help, and a clerical job at the Youth Center. When Mankiller noticed the girl's fear of helping with anything besides the basic errands, she recognized the problem and helped the girl into the solution - a literacy program. It was as the director of the Native American Youth Center that Wilma Mankiller learned a very important concept that would become a basic tenet to her in a short time - the essential quality of self-help.

The Bell Community Revitalization Project

Meeting many active Native American activists through the gatherings at the San Francisco Indian Center, Mankiller slowly grew into her political consciousness. Her goals centered on economic renewal and community self-help, or the need for tribes to end their dependence on federal support. She knew that a tribe had the "capacity to solve its own problems, given the right set of circumstances and resources" and that with this success, the community would become strong, viable, and independent. Mankiller would have the chance to prove to the world her position in 1981, when she helped organize the Bell Community Revitalization Project. The goal of Mankiller and the community was to bring people together to solve their common problems. The people of Bell proudly accepted the challenge of bettering their own lives, and at the end of the self-renewal project, all of their goals had been accomplished. The community now had a rual water system, where before many had to haul water in from a stream, buildings were rehabilitated, and new residences built. The community had revitalized itself and, to Wilma Mankiller and many others, it was a very important success. (On a more personal level, the Bell project was very important to Mankiller because it was here that she really came to know the man who would become her husband in 1986 - Charlie Soap.)

Taking Over Alcatraz

Even before the Bell Community Project, Mankiller put her ideals to action. In November 1969, Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island as a protest against the "gross mistreatment of native people and to remind the whites that the land was ours before it was theirs." This occupation would eventually stretch into a stay of nineteen months and would include as many as one thousand people of all sorts. This group of "All Tribes," as they were calling themselves, cited a long-forgotten clause in a treaty that stated that any unused federal lands reverted to Native American use. When that argument did not pan out, the activists even tried to buy the island from the government, offering "twenty-four dollar's worth of glass beads and red cloth in fair exchange for the island," the same amount offered to the Indians more than three hundred years before for the island of Manhattan. Wilma Mankiller did not stay on the island because by that time she was married to Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi and had two girls, Felicia and Gina. Though she was not able to be there physically all the time, Mankiller supported the activists in spirit and in action - organizing fund-raising activities and the like back in San Francisco at the Indian Center.

Helping (and being helped by) the Pit River People

Mankiller's activism continued when she and her two girls (her marriage to Hugo Olaya had unraveled, though they had not yet divorced) became volunteer workers for the Pit River people in their legal battle with an electric company over land rights. The three women began a five-year association with the tribe in the early 1970s. During that time, Wilma Mankiller helped to organize their legal defense fund and learned very important facts about treaty rights and international law, along with a further education in Native American culture; all would help her later on. This experience with the Pit River people in northern California gave her both the desire to return to her native roots in Oklahoma and the knowledge needed to help them.

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