Remembering Former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller
By Joshua Brakhage and NewsOn6.com
TAHLEQUAH, OK -- The Cherokee Nation announced Tuesday former chief Wilma Mankiller has died. In March, the Cherokee Nation said Mankiller had been diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Pancreatic Cancer.
She was the first woman to lead a Native American tribe and Mankiller completely changed the face of the Cherokee Nation.
During her 10 years as chief, Mankiller's tribe tripled in size to become the country's second-largest.
She retired from public office in 1995.
Wilma Mankiller broke barriers and stereotypes, becoming the first woman to lead a Native American tribe before succumbing to cancer Tuesday morning.
It was an unlikely path to power, but looking back, it seems Mankiller was destined to lead.
Originally an unpopular pick for Assistant Chief, Wilma Mankiller took control of the tribe in 1985 when Chief Ross Swimmer accepted a federal appointment.
"To describe, as some people did to me, she was an extreme liberal female who had no business in the leadership of the Cherokee Nation," said Chad Swimmer, Former Cherokee Chief.
Mankiller grew up on Mankiller Flat, the Oklahoma land allotted to her grandfather.
"We had no electricity. We had no indoor plumbing. There was no paved road near our house," Mankiller said during an interview in 1996.
That simple life ended at 10-years-old. Mankiller was part of her own Trail of Tears, loaded up on a train and taken to the Red Light District of San Francisco, courtesy of a government relocation program. She had never been more isolated from her Cherokee heritage.
But the move gave Mankiller a front row seat when Native American students made a stand for their rights, by occupying Alcatraz Island in 1969.
"That was a major political watershed for me, because that was a period of time when I decided to get involved, rather than just sitting on the sidelines," Mankiller said.
Mankiller became a political activist and returned to Oklahoma. Her rise to power in the Cherokee Nation began literally in the trenches, as she spearheaded a massive effort to bring running water to tribal families still living in tar paper shacks.
She would ascend to chief and her 10 years in office would see an explosion in tribal membership, revenues and prestige.
The Cherokee Nation became the second-largest tribe in America under Mankiller's watch and she became an influential national leader, as welcome in the White House as she was in humble Cherokee homes.
But Mankiller's most unrelenting opponent in her rise to power was her own health and for years, taking a stand for her people looked impossible.
Mankiller was confined to a wheelchair after she was nearly killed in a head-on car crash in 1979. She was later struck down by a muscular disorder -- she couldn't hold a pen, or lift her own head.
"I began to accept the fact that I was not going to live," said Mankiller. "I really sometimes feel I'm living on borrowed time, because I've recovered so well."
Five years into her decade as chief, her life was threatened by kidney disease, until she received a kidney transplant.
No sooner did she retire, than she developed cancer. She endured several rounds of radiation and chemotherapy to treat lymphoma in 1996. She defeated the disease, but the diagnosis in 2010 was more dire. The cancer was back, this time Stage IV Metastatic Pancreatic Cancer.
In an e-mail statement in early March, Mankiller wrote,
"…I am mentally and spiritually prepared for this journey; a journey that all human beings will take at one time or another. 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. On balance, I have been blessed with an extraordinarily rich and wonderful life, filled with incredible experiences…"
Wilma Mankiller was 64-years-old.
Mankiller requested that any gifts in her honor be made as donations to One Fire Development Corporation, a non-profit dedicated to advancing Native American communities though economic development, and to valuing the wisdom that exists within each of the diverse tribal communities around the world. Tax deductible donations can be made at www.wilmamankiller.com as well as www.onefiredevelopment.org.
The mailing address for One Fire Development Corporation is 1220 Southmore Houston, TX 77004.
Her memorial service will be Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds in Tahlequah.
Comments on the death of former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller on Tuesday:
"I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Wilma Mankiller (Tuesday). As the Cherokee Nation's first female chief, she transformed the Nation-to-Nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the Federal Government, and served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she was recognized for her vision and commitment to a brighter future for all Americans. Her legacy will continue to encourage and motivate all who carry on her work." -- President Barack Obama.
"We are saddened by the passing of our friend Wilma Mankiller, a woman who exemplified the enduring strength of the human spirit. As the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, she was not only the guardian of the centuries-old Cherokee heritage but a revered leader who built a brighter and healthier future for her nation. During her two terms, she worked to create jobs, break down social and economic barriers, improve access to health care, and address the roots of both rural and urban poverty. She led her people with dignity and grace, fostering a sense of community, cooperation, and shared values." -- Former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"We feel overwhelmed and lost when we realize she has left us but we should reflect on what legacy she leaves us. We are better people and a stronger tribal nation because her example of Cherokee leadership, statesmanship, humility, grace, determination and decisiveness. When we become disheartened, we will be inspired by remembering how Wilma proceeded undaunted through so many trials and tribulations. Years ago, she and her husband Charlie Soap showed the world what Cherokee people can do when given the chance, when they organized the self-help water line in the Bell community. She said Cherokees in that community learned that it was their choice, their lives, their community and their future. Her gift to us is the lesson that our lives and future are for us to decide. We can carry on that Cherokee legacy by teaching our children that lesson." -- Current Cherokee Chief Chad Smith.
"All Oklahomans and every Native American who knew her mourn the passing of Wilma Mankiller. Chief Mankiller was not only the first woman to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, she was a national icon and role model for women and Native Americans everywhere. Her strong, visionary and principled leadership set a standard seldom equaled and never to be surpassed. I had the opportunity over the years to get to know Chief Mankiller personally. She was tough, shrewd and dedicated to the well-being of the Cherokee Nation and all Native Americans. No one more fiercely defended the concept of tribal sovereignty, yet no one was more willing to partner with others of different backgrounds and points of view than Wilma Mankiller. ... We'll not soon see her like again." -- U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
"We have lost an inspirational leader and a great American, someone who was truly a legend in her own time. As a leader and a person, Chief Wilma Mankiller continually defied the odds and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to better her tribe, her state and her nation. Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation and the United States will dearly miss Wilma and her visionary leadership, but her words and deeds will live on forever to benefit future generations." -- Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry.
"Throughout her long career of advocating the best for her people, and all of Indian Country, Wilma was a shining example of courage and leadership for all Americans. We will miss her dearly, but we know that her spirit and example live on, encouraging all American Indians to stand up for what they believe in and to step up and accept the challenge of serving in leadership roles." -- U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
"She willingly reached out beyond her tribal community and Indian Country in search of solutions to the social and economic challenges facing the Cherokee people, while sharing her knowledge and insights with anyone who needed them. We honor her with our gratitude for all she has contributed in service to her people and to Indian Country. Her personal experiences in childhood of the economic struggles of her family and the impact of the federal government's relocation policy on her life led to insights into what should be done, and could be done, to improve the lives of all Indian people. -- Assistant U.S. Interior Secretary Larry Echo Hawk, who heads the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"Wilma Mankiller broke down barriers as the first female Cherokee chief, and her legacy will continue for generations to come. She overcame many obstacles and never backed down to a challenge, which serves as a lesson to all of us as we seek to make our state a better place for all its people." -- Oklahoma House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, who is part Cherokee.
"Chief Wilma Mankiller brought honor to Oklahoma and the Cherokee tribe through her leadership not only within our state and among tribal leaders, but certainly her influence was felt across our nation. She leaves a legacy of service that will be sorely missed by all." -- Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City.
"She just impacted so many Cherokee lives. She was a tireless worker for the people who had very little. She never spent a day not making sure that the needs of the Cherokee people were addressed." -- Oklahoma State Rep. Chuck Hoskin, D-Vinita, a former member of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council.
"Oklahoma has lost a legend. Chief Mankiller was a true trailblazer in our state's history, as well as an esteemed and revered leader of her tribe. Her leadership is an inspiration to us all, reminding us to challenge the status quo and overcome barriers for the betterment of our neighbors, our communities and our nation as a whole." -- U.S. Rep Mary Fallin, R-Oklahoma.
"She was a pioneer for her generation, and for the generations of women to follow. It would be hard to overstate what a great role model she was, not only as a woman and a Cherokee, but as a leader and a public servant. Her death is a loss for all Oklahomans." -- Oklahoma House Democratic Leader Danny Morgan of Prague.
"This is a great loss, for the Cherokee tribe, for the Tahlequah community, and for the state of Oklahoma. Her leadership and her policies will have a continuing effect for decades to come. It was my honor to have known her, and to have seen first-hand the positive impact of her leadership." -- Oklahoma State Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, who is Cherokee.
"The loss of Wilma Mankiller is a loss for all of Oklahoma. She was a true icon and a pioneer -- breaking barriers for women and for all of Indian Country. Through scores of trials and mountains of adversity, Wilma Mankiller always pressed on with her work to advance the causes nearest to her heart. She pressed on, with the weight of previous generations and the hope of future generations always on her mind, directing her to do the most good. Chief Mankiller championed community development, focusing those around her on working for the common good. She fostered government-to-government relations between the Cherokee Nation and the federal government, creating an era of mutual respect and recognition. Wilma Mankiller will be dearly missed, but her legacy will always live and her fight will go on." -- Oklahoma Democratic Party Chairman Todd Goodman.
WILMA PEARL MANKILLER BIOGRAPHY:
Wilma Mankiller was an author, lecturer and former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Her roots are planted deep in the rural community of Mankiller Flats in Adair County, Oklahoma where she has spent most of her life. She was born in 1945 at Hastings Indian Hospital in Tahlequah, and grew up with few amenities. At age 10, her family moved to San Francisco as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Relocation Program where she lived for two decades before returning to Oklahoma in 1977.
Wilma was the founding director of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department, which received several national awards for innovative use of self-help in housing and water projects in low-income Cherokee communities. Then in 1983, she was elected the first female deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation, and president of the tribal council. In l987, she was elected to serve as the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and was overwhelmingly re-elected in 1991. She chose not to seek re-election in l995.
During Wilma's tenure she met with Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton to present critical tribal issues, and she and Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah co-chaired a national conference between tribal leaders and cabinet members which helped facilitate the establishment of an Office of Indian Justice within the U.S. Department of Justice. Wilma's tenure was also marked by a great deal of new development, including several new free-standing health clinics, an $11 million Job Corps Center, and greatly expanded services for children and youth. She led the team that developed the core businesses which comprise Cherokee Nation Enterprises.
She has been honored with many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She has published several works, including, Every Day is a Good Day, Fulcrum Publishing 2004, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, co-authored, St. Martin's Press 1993, A Reader's Companion to the History of Women in the U.S., co-edited, Houghton-Mifflin 1998. She has also contributed to other publications, including an essay for Native Universe, the inaugural publication of the National Museum of the American Indian. Wilma Mankiller lives on the Mankiller family allotment in the Cherokee Nation with her husband, Charlie Soap.
General Background Information:
She has served on several philanthropic boards, including twelve years on the board of trustees of the Ford Foundation, four years on the Board of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and four years on the board of the Seventh Generation Fund. She current serves on the board of the Freedom Forum and as well as its subsidiary, the Newseum, a $400 million museum of the news being constructed on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. to promote the First Amendment. She has served as a member of the external Diversity Advisory Council for Merrill Lynch. She has presented more than 100 lectures on the challenges facing Native Americans and women in the 21st century. She served as the Wayne Morse Professor at the University of Oregon for the fall semester, 2005 where she and Dr. Rennard Strickland taught a class on tribal government, law and life.
Education: Bachelor of Science degree in social sciences, some graduate work in community planning.
Honorary Doctorate Degrees:
• Yale University
• Dartmouth College
• Smith College
• Mills College
• Northern Arizona University
• University of Oklahoma
• Oklahoma City University
• Oklahoma State University
• Tulsa University
• Drury College
• Saint Mary-of-the-Woods
• Rhode Island College
• New England University
• Northeastern State University
• Presidential Medal of Freedom
• Montgomery Fellowship, Dartmouth College
• The Chubb Fellowship, Timothy Dwight College, Yale University
• San Francisco State University, Hall of Fame
• San Francisco State Alumna of the Year (1988)
• International Women of Distinction Award, Alpha Delta Kappa
• Oklahoma Hall of Fame
• Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame
• National Women's Hall of Fame
• International Women's Forum Hall of Fame
• Minority Business Hall of Fame
• Women of the Year, Oklahoma Federation of Indian Women
• Woman of the Year, Ms. Magazine
• Celebration of Heroes, Newsweek Cover Story
• ABC Person of the Week, ABC Nightly News
• National Racial Justice Award
• Henry G. Bennett Distinguished Service Award, Oklahoma State University
• John W. Gardner Leadership Award, Independent Sector
• United States Public Health Service Leadership Award
• Humanitarian Award, National Conference of Christians and Jews
• The Dorothy Height Lifetime Achievement Award
• The Elizabeth Blackwell Award
• 50 Most Influential People of the Century, in Oklahoma
• 50 Most Important People in the U.S., Who's Who
• Hero, Glamour Magazine, 2006
The Associated Press contributed to this report.