Have a Merry Mankiller
5 DECEMBER 2022
I was thrilled to learn the US Mint issued a 25-cent coin to recognize Wilma Mankiller.
This week I decided to track down some quarters to share with family as a holiday gift that honors an activist’s efforts to uplift American Indians.
Mankiller became deputy-chief of the Cherokee Nation (Western Band) in 1983, and was elected chief four years later, according to a press release from the Mint.
The election launched her into the national limelight as the first woman ever elected chief of the Cherokee, and she became a sought-after speaker, writer and advocate for American Indians, and for women and children.
In 1998, Mankiller was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom: the highest civilian honor endowed by the Head of State.
And in 2022, the Mint issued Wilma Mankiller coins.
Like many Native families in the 1950s, the Mankillers moved from their tribal home as part of the US Government’s relocation program aimed at mainstreaming Indians.
Mankiller described being uprooted from rural Oklahoma to California’s Bay Area as a “shock.”
She told the Washington Post that, as a youth, she had “no way to conceptualize San Francisco or even a city … We’d never been past the Muskogee State Fair.”
As an adult, Mankiller would become embroiled in civil rights and community activism, which led to a deep commitment to Native American justice.
But she felt she should do more for her kin and decided to return to Oklahoma in the 1970s.
Mankiller worked tirelessly to win the confidence of local residents and “became the best kind of leader: one who creates independence, not dependence; who helps people go back to a collective broken place and begin to heal themselves,” according to an interview with Mankiller’s friend, Gloria Steinem.
I thought of Steinem as I searched locally for Mankiller quarters, venturing out one afternoon to a national bank’s local office.
I asked the teller if the Mankiller quarters were in circulation, and if she had any.
The teller paused, replaying my request in her brain, and–after several breaths–said she had no idea.
She opened a drawer and fished out a roll of coins wrapped in paper.
“We get them like this, so I can’t see what they look like.”
I was stunned; probably because I figured she could have asked a manager about the Mankillers before shooing me away.
I said thank you and left.
As I played the conversation over in my head, I revised the script and decided to try the local credit union office, which is tucked within a large grocery store nearby.
The teller asked how he could help.
Sweet as pie I asked whether he heard if the “brand new Native American Wilma Mankiller quarters were in circulation” and where I might find them.
Like the first teller, he paused.
Finally he said, “I don’t even know who that is,” and said he didn’t know anything about where to find the new coins.
Coins just … appear.
Clearly the US Mint’s communication efforts miss the folks who work directly with muggles like me.
I decided to change strategy and looked up the US Mint online, only to discover nothing about how to get Mankiller quarters–even though they reportedly began being circulating in June.
A link invites you to “shop now,” where you can find a gallimaufry of collections geared to devotées of all things coinage from John F. Kennedy to Sally Ride.
After a few more searches and I discovered non-governmental sources selling coins.
Amazon will sell you two freshly-minted Mankillers for $9.99 (20-times the face value).
Another vendor sells Mankillers for 75 cents each (three-times the value) or you can buy a five-dollar roll for $10.95 (just over double the face value) –not including the cost to ship to your home.
My brief escapade into the land of coins, commerce and Cherokee politics yielded a Baudrillardian moment.
Philosopher Jean Baudrillard would have described my journey as a melding of the mundane with the hyper-real, where some of the coins in your piggy bank assume a greater-than-their-true value while simultaneously linking commerce with Indigeneity, all wrapped in camouflage.
The Mankiller coin comes full of contradictions, bookended by the upheaval of the Cherokee from their ancestral homelands in the 1830s and by the meaning of cash coins.
The Cherokee territory in Georgia was long coveted by settlers, and the Native people responded by adopting settler customs—including an orthography for their spoken language—and building western-style cabins for their homes in New Echota.
The Supreme Court ruled in the tribe’s favor in 1831, acknowledging the Cherokee as a sovereign nation that is independent from the state of Georgia.
The Cherokee hoped the ruling would curb settler avarice.
But President Andrew Jackson defied the Court and sent soldiers to Georgia and other Eastern territories to forcibly remove all Native peoples.
Cherokee and other Indians were forced to walk at gun-point in bitter weather for more than 700 miles Westward.
Historians contend that some 5,000 Cherokee died on the infamous Trail of Tears.
The Mankiller quarter offers contrasting faces of cultures: one side that appeals to the persistence of Native Americans who survived expulsion, sterilization, poverty and pandemics, and one side that Baudrillard considered a “pure simulacrum.”
Currency—forged from metal or woven from cotton and linen—no longer reflects gold bullion as its nucleus.
Instead, currency “is a sort of ecstasy of value, utterly detached from production and its real conditions: a pure, empty form, the purged form of value operating on nothing but its own revolving motion,” said Baudrillard.
Will the Mankiller quarter diffuse through daily activities or will it fade away like the Sacagawea dollar?
Maybe the Mankiller quarter will invite users to imagine Native Americans in a new light: not as exotic, but as part of the fabric of American society.
Photo: Uncredited Mankiller quarter image posted on Etsy.com under “2022 New American Women Quarter.”
Post Script: Impeached former president Donald Trump drew scorn from some on mainstream and social media for insulting Native American war heroes he invited to the White House. For the publicized event, television cameras framed images of code talkers against the backdrop of an Andrew Jackson portrait. Trump added insult to injury by including in his public comments to the Native crowd a reference to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” a racist slur, according to US Senator Tom Udall.
5 December 2022
I honor the Native Peoples on whose ancestral homelands we gather here in the Pacific Northwest.