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“One of the things my parents taught me, and I'll always be grateful . . . is to not ever let anybody else define me; that for me to define myself . . .”
Wilma Mankiller is honored and recognized as the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. She is also the first woman elected as chief of a major Native tribe. She spent her remarkable life fighting for the rights of American Indians.
The surname "Mankiller," in the Cherokee language, refers to a traditional Cherokee military rank, like a captain or major.
Though Mankiller recalled that she never felt poor growing up, the family’s rural ancestral home had no electricity, indoor plumbing, or telephones. When she was 11, the family moved to San Francisco, as part of a Bureau of Indian Affairs’ relocation policy, which aimed to move Indians off federally subsidized lands with the promise of jobs in America’s big cities.
She first developed her own social activism when a dramatic event changed her life. In 1969, a group of American Indians took over the federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and laid claim to it by ‘right of discovery’ to expose the suffering of American Indians. Mankiller recalled, “. . . When Alcatraz occurred, I became aware of what needed to be done to let the rest of the world know that Indians had rights, too.”
Forever changed by Alcatraz and inspired by the women’s movement, Mankiller worked to empower the surrounding Native communities in California, serving as director of Oakland’s Native American Youth Center. She believed that restoring pride in Native heritage could reduce the downward spiral of Native youth growing up in the streets. She supported California’s Pit River Tribe in its legal battle against Pacific Gas and Electric over the rights to millions of acres of the tribal land.
She later moved back to Oklahoma and her activism continued when she founded the Community Development Department for the Cherokee Nation, focusing on improving access to water and housing. Her first project was in Bell, Oklahoma, a small Cherokee community of 200 families with no running water, high unemployment, and a persistent sense of disempowerment. This enabled Bell residents to construct a 16-mile waterline over a 14-month period. The feat resulted in a full-length feature film, The Cherokee Word for Water.
Mankiller was elected to serve as the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985. She led for 10 years, guiding a sovereign nation whose population more than doubled, from 68,000 to 170,000 during her tenure.
The first woman to be elected chief of a major American Indian tribe, she revitalized the Nation’s tribal government, and advocated relentlessly for improved education, healthcare, and housing services.
Her successes earned her national recognition as the Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year in 1987. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and in 1998 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Bill Clinton. Her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, was published in 1993.
Mankiller died on April 6, 2010, at age 64 from pancreatic cancer. Her funeral was attended by Many women activists and both Presidents Clinton and Obama.
Gloria Steinem, who was by her side when Mankiller walked on, said of her friend, “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.”
She remains an inspiration to many Cherokees and strong women everywhere.