By Joshua Brakhage and Terry Hood, The News On 6

CATOOSA, OK -- The Cherokee Nation announced former chief Wilma Mankiller has been diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Pancreatic Cancer.

The diagnosis has Oklahoma, her tribe and Mankiller herself looking back at her life.

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 was a leader who revolutionized Cherokee education, health care and business. The tribe now has a high school in Tahlequah. A multi-million dollar Cherokee health center bears Mankiller's name. And Mankiller herself took a key role in the businesses that now comprise Cherokee Nation Enterprises.

Mankiller has faced down cancer before. She endured radiation and chemotherapy less than a year after retiring from office to treat lymphoma. She defeated the disease and resumed a busy schedule, teaching and lecturing, especially on Native American and women's issues. 

Mankiller famously said that before her rise to power, "young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up and become chief."

Every leader faces controversy. Mankiller established the law that shut out Cherokee Freedmen from the tribe, and set up a decades-long battle as the black descendants of Cherokee-owned slaves fought to be re-included.

The last time we saw Mankiller in public, she was celebrating the groundbreaking of Toby Keith's restaurant at the Cherokee Casino in Catoosa -- fitting for the woman who led the charge to develop her tribe into a power player in Oklahoma's economy.

"People always think that there's something exceptional about me and I'm here to tell you, there's nothing at all exceptional about me except that I'm Native American, just like you are," Wilma Mankiller said in 1996.

In a brief statement, Mankiller said:

"I decided to issue this statement because I want my family and friends to know that 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. And I am grateful to have a support team composed of loving family and friends. I will be spending my time with my family and close friends and engaging in activities I enjoy. It's been my privilege to meet and be touched by thousands of people in my life and I regret not being able to deliver this message personally to so many of you. If anyone wants to send a message to me, it is best to email me at"


Wilma Mankiller is 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:

Current activities: 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