The Great Plains has long been home to unconventional and leading-edge politics, from the fiery Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan to the country’s first female U.S. representative and first female governor to the nation’s only single-house state legislature. Great Plains Politics provides a lively tour of the Great Plains region through the civic and political contributions of its citizens, demonstrating the importance of community in the region.Great Plains Politics profiles six men and women who had a profound impact on the civic and community life of the Great Plains: Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and a political activist at both the local and the national levels; Virginia Smith, an educator from Nebraska who served as a U.S. representative in Congress; Junius Groves, an African American farmer and community builder from Kansas; George McGovern, a South Dakota senator whose 1972 presidential campaign galvanized widespread grassroots support; Robert Dole, a Kansas congressman and longtime senator as well as the Republican candidate for U.S. president in 1988; and Harriet Elizabeth Byrd, the first African American elected as a state representative in Wyoming. The lives of these individuals illustrate the robust and enduring civic and community involvement of inhabitants of the Great Plains and presage a hopeful continuation of its storied political tradition.
About the Author
Peter J. Longo is a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is coauthor of The Nebraska State Constitution: A Reference Guide, Second Edition (Nebraska, 2009).
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Grassroots Activism to Leading the Cherokee Nation
Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the home of Wilma Mankiller, is on the eastern Oklahoma cusp of the Great Plains, which gives rise to the Ozark Uplift. From the uplift, if one strains one can see the rolling Great Plains. Mankiller was born in 1945, several generations removed from the physical Trail of Tears but metaphysically always a part of the path. Her political life reveals many attributes that derive from her Cherokee roots. Place is often defined by its physical space but can also refer to the social connections among people living within a particular location. Knowledge and appreciation of one's place is vital for understanding community life and for perspective on how one might serve the greater community. Cherokee heritage defined Mankiller's sense of place.
Mankiller's upbringing was shaped by family, fellow Cherokees, and broader Native traditions. The Cherokees settled in Oklahoma under much different terms than white settlers, who were for the most part voluntarily lured to the state by promises of cheap land and fulfilling notions of manifest destiny. As forced settlers, the Cherokees turned their collective attention to making the best of a malevolent government decision. Bad politics and hurtful policies provided the Cherokees with their Oklahoma home. Good politics, from the likes of Mankiller, would create opportunities there for the tribal community.
Mankiller for a time was the leader of her fellow Cherokees and of community members in Tahlequah. For her many accomplishments, she was a serious candidate to replace Andrew Jackson as the face on the twenty-dollar bill. (Harriet Tubman, another major contributor to community life, was chosen instead.)
The Cherokees' sense of place is muddled due to forced settlement. While they have always possessed an appreciation of their culture, their connection to their physical place was disrupted when Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren forced them to leave their ancestral lands, relocating them from the Southeast to Oklahoma. The Indian Relocation Act, urged by Jackson, set in motion treaty negotiations and removal in 1838 under Van Buren. The Nunda-ut-sun'y (trail where they cried), most commonly known as the Trail of Tears, was a daunting reality, as roughly four thousand of the seventeen thousand Cherokees died in the forced move. Despite their forced relocation, the Cherokees eventually forged a sense of place in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Legal constructs defined the Oklahoma boundaries, but the coexistence of the Cherokee Nation and Oklahoma remains a story still in progress. Cherokee culture shaped community life early on, and many aspects of the state resulted from its multiracial development. Of the three hundred thousand Cherokees, more than one hundred thousand live within the boundaries of Oklahoma. The multicultural relations between Cherokees and other settlers is part of the essence of Oklahoma.
Mankiller's earliest understandings of politics and community life were derived from her Cherokee foundation and the facets of place surrounding her. The Cherokee philosophy was the major catalyst for her political work. Cherokees draw strength from each other and not from material accumulations. Mankiller's politics were shaped by an understanding of community good, not just individual wealth. An examination of Mankiller's heritage and experiences will lead to a better understanding of the political contributions she made to her community, the state of Oklahoma, and beyond.
Early Years: Developing a Sense of Place
Economic austerity was very real to Mankiller. Her family was poor, and the influences provided by material wealth were absent. In her 1993 autobiography, she writes, "We were not well off, at least when it came to money. Like many of the people in Adair County, we were really poor — 'dirt poor' — is how they say it in Oklahoma." But there was a richness to her life. As she explains, "There were always lots of children to run and play with, and laughter and no set bedtime." She grew up surrounded by a loving family and friends and the gifts of the natural world. Tahlequah was her home, her community, her place of security. It is not likely that a preteen Mankiller was contemplating her role as a political leader. Her politics were guided by her family, and her sense of security was reinforced by family and the familiar surroundings of her place. The place just happened to be in Oklahoma. But as time passed, her identity became grounded in that place. The understanding of place has many layers — land, people, family, tradition — and this understanding would guide Mankiller's journey as she traveled through life.
Mankiller's path from childhood to adulthood was difficult. At the age of eleven, in 1956, the comfort of living in Tahlequah ended when her father decided to uproot the family and move to California. The move was generated by yet another ill-conceived federal program, one that aimed to "urbanize" Native Americans.
As Mankiller was uprooted from her childhood place of comfort, she lost a loving community and physical atmosphere that had surrounded her for years. Despite repetitive pleas, as an eleven-year-old she did not have the political clout in her family to sway decision-making, so off she went with her family. California had little appeal to the young Mankiller. Despite her young age, she had already developed a keen sense of place. California would offer her many enduring lessons, but at the time, the move made no sense to her. Adolescents, Mankiller included, typically do not conjure up ways in which a move can somehow provide leadership development; the goal for most is to stay in control of their personal identity. By most accounts, she would have rather stayed in Oklahoma.
In a metaphysical sense, she likely never left her Cherokee home. In a New York Times article, reporter Sam Howe Verhovek said that Mankiller remarked, "I remember as we drove to the train, I felt so sad. I wasn't excited at all. I was trying to memorize every tree, and what the school looked like, which flowers were blooming in my grandfather's front yard, all those sorts of things."
She would remember the land. The trees would give way to the Oklahoma plains as she traveled through the state and onward to California, a place that never quite captured her attention and certainly did not define her essence. The family was relocated to the Bay Area, but the Bay Area was not to be the final destination for Mankiller. Her interest, even as she matured into womanhood, was instilled in Oklahoma. California, although a land of opportunity for many, was the destination of her own Trail of Tears. But she lived in the Bay Area through her midtwenties, and as a result, California and the political events of the sixties and seventies enriched her political knowledge and understanding. Like so many Cherokees, Mankiller made the best of the move. Still, her gaze and love of her childhood place on the cusp of the plains did not wane. The lessons she gathered from California were many, and they only complemented her Tahlequah groundings.
California politics also provided opportunities and experiences that added to Mankiller's overall worldview. She volunteered in Native American centers, joined the occupation of Alcatraz, and engaged in a variety of other political activities in the state. Political activism can be acquired in diverse settings, and likewise, it does not know boundaries. Mankiller made the most of her time in California to learn how to contribute to the greater community life. Still, she keenly remembered her childhood in Oklahoma, and her deep affection for it brought her back home. She had learned to serve with and for others; in this regard, she embodied gadugi — the characteristic of working together. Now she would apply those lessons where they counted most.
Returning Home: Political Activism in Oklahoma
In the late 1970s Mankiller and her two daughters returned to Oklahoma. From her family perch, she would dream and plan how she might best serve her Cherokee people. Her dreams were delayed, however, when she was involved in a near-fatal automobile accident. She recovered slowly, and the recovery process heightened her resolve to serve others. Once restored to health, she entered public life.
Oklahoma was an interesting place to be a leader. The Cherokees confronted intense social and economic problems, just as other Oklahomans did. The Vietnam War heightened political concerns across the entire political spectrum, and even as it was winding down, domestic tensions flared. Mankiller's progressive views were not always congruent with those of her more conservative and pro–Vietnam War neighbors. Merle Haggard, a fellow Oklahoman, sang out his displeasure with all things progressive in "Okie from Muskogee," and the song lingered in the political air of Oklahoma. Haggard's song represented his sense of Oklahoma, a sense embraced by many a conservative Oklahoman. Mankiller would have to navigate through such mutterings. While Haggard and others were protesting the protestors of the Vietnam War, Mankiller was continuing to learn from her community and preparing to lead.
Mankiller knew she needed more formal education in order to help solve the challenges that confronted her community. In the years following her automobile accident she earned a college degree from Stillwell Flaming Rainbow University Without Walls, an institution journalist Chris Brawley described as known "to provide personalized college education for isolated Indians and rural whites in this beautifully treed and poverty stricken section of the state."
Her alma mater has since closed, but its ideas were certainly kept alive through Mankiller's community contributions. A "university without walls" seems like a fitting metaphor for Mankiller's continual quest for knowledge, a quest that empowered her and the many she served. Mankiller's knowledge began with books. She grew up with no television or electricity, so reading books provided a good base for the informed leader she came to be. The following excerpt from a letter dated April 14, 1993, that she wrote to the dean of the University of Oklahoma Library illustrates her understanding of community and schooling, an understanding that was as expansive as the geography of Oklahoma:
Reading introduced me to a world beyond my small rural Oklahoma community. By reading I learned about all kinds of people and places. I was able to learn that people with very different lifestyles had similar concerns and sometimes similar hopes for the future.
Several books have had a profound effect but none more than a 1978 reading of Paolo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." Freire's clear description of oppressed peoples' view of themselves and the world around them dramatically altered the way I view community development work.
Mankiller continued, explaining that reading still played a central role in her life. Her varied and expansive reading list included selections from Pulitzer Prize winners, philosophers, feminists, and more. She emphasized the importance of reading amid the business of everyday life. "Reading is a common and endeared activity for community members of the Great Plains," she wrote. "If a student is asked about the important educational activities in their Great Plains place, reading is often listed as the favorite. The Carnegie library is a physical mainstay of Great Plains communities." Mankiller recognized the need for greater educational infrastructure and for transforming her words into action.
Mankiller began her perhaps most famous campaign with a simple vision: to supply clean water to Cherokee communities. Her effort is vividly captured in the 2013 film The Cherokee Word for Water. In the 1980s Mankiller was the community development director for the Cherokee town of Bell, which, like many Cherokee communities of the time, had no running water. Mankiller led a community-based effort to build a pipeline that would supply water to Bell and other towns along its path. During the process she learned important lessons on the politics of empowerment and community development. According to observers, the efforts were gadugi (working together), a guiding principle in Mankiller's method of leadership. Still, Mankiller was the driving force from start to finish, demonstrating unwavering determination, perseverance, and commitment to the greater good.
Mankiller worked with, not above, her fellow community members. She toiled shoulder-to-shoulder at the most basic level, digging trenches and laying pipe. When not engaged in manual labor, she served as her own public relations director, often bringing the project to a larger Oklahoman and national audience. In the midst of all this work, Mankiller remained a dedicated mother, her actions strongly suggesting that political life starts with family and only then moves into and throughout the community.
In this early project, Mankiller developed a pragmatic appreciation of the connections between community and government. She came to realize that cynical attitudes toward government provide no cure for community ills. While Mankiller was at times rightly critical of government and a strong advocate for community members, she knew how to work with and not against government. She could see the advantages of obtaining government grants and persuading the greater public of the benefits of the water project.
Not everyone supported her as she navigated through community issues and passions. Skeptics, disinterested bureaucrats, and even fellow Cherokees expressed misgivings, and some believed leadership on this scale was not appropriate for a woman. But she refused to be intimidated by naysayers, remarking in The Cherokee Word for Water, "I learned a long time ago that I can't control the challenges the creator sends my way, but I can control the way I think about them and deal with them." Mankiller clearly believed in herself. Government is a given, but individuals make the true differences in and out of government. Mankiller saw the need to take part in the formal political process, even though political combatants would from time to time get their licks in on her. She did not wilt.
Mankiller's political savvy provides a model for those interested in understanding the relationship between community building and leadership. There are numerous so-called leadership institutes and schools, and formal organizations tend to prey upon unwitting Great Plains citizens to engage in leadership camps. But there seems to be no substitute for putting words into action as Mankiller did. This historical leader understood from an early age that she was not above others because of her formal education; instead, she aptly connected her accumulation of knowledge to her political actions.
Beyond the Water Endeavor
The Bell project provided Mankiller both the political capital and the confidence to proceed with greater endeavors. Neighbors near and far had felt the positive impact of her leadership. From this successful experience, Mankiller knew she was highly capable and had the potential to lead. She decided to jump into the broader political spectrum.
Mankiller focused next on leading the entire Cherokee Nation, but obstacles abounded. First and foremost, she was a woman. Despite her achievement in bringing water to communities, the Cherokee electorate seemed reluctant to have a woman as its principal chief. They had fewer objections to a woman being vice chief, and Mankiller served in that role for Chief Ross Swimmer beginning in 1982. Even then, the road was not easy. Policy in this area was set by a federal court case, Wheeler v. Swimmer (1987), which reaffirmed tribal political autonomy. R. Perry Wheeler had hoped to be chief rather than Swimmer, and he attempted to employ federal law to remove Swimmer; however, the court held that Cherokee law prevailed. Thus Swimmer became the principal chief. But three years later Swimmer left his position to take a job in the Reagan administration.
Mankiller thus rose to principal chief by default. This complex chain of events illustrates Mankiller's persevering political will. She navigated the political maze to her advantage, and in turn, she gained a position from which to serve her fellow Cherokees. Once the path was open, Mankiller was able to lead according to her vision. Her accomplishments and endearing personal style allowed her to gain considerable trust and, in turn, popularity. She was elected principal chief in her own right in 1987 and reelected in 1991.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were packed with economic and social issues. At the national level, Mankiller had to navigate President Reagan's nationwide agenda of reducing support for social programs. Locally, Oklahomans were coping with a drastic drop in oil prices. Mankiller knew well that she had to partner with other governmental entities within Oklahoma and on the federal level. For example, she worked to bring hydroelectric power through the development of dams by coupling Cherokee electricity needs with the needs of Oklahomans generally. Building dams confronted Mankiller with some interesting and nuanced theoretical arguments. The Cherokees' view of nature as sacred, so often a guide for the nation, might argue against any dam construction, but dams brought undeniable economic opportunities to the Cherokees. Mankiller's approach as usual was pragmatic, and she used her political skills effectively to allay her constituents' environmental concerns.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Great Plains Politics"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Introduction Chapter One. Wilma Mankiller: Grassroots Activism to Leading the Cherokee Nation Chapter Two. Virginia Smith: Beyond the Kitchen Chapter Three. Junius Groves: From Slave to Potato King Chapter Four. George McGovern: Serving the Plains and Beyond Chapter Five. Bob Dole: The Man from Russell Chapter Six. Elizabeth Byrd: A Legacy in the Face of Discrimination Conclusion Bibliography Index