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Cherokee Chief Wilma Pearl Mankiller: A glorious season draws to an untimely close

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Former Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Wilma Pearl Mankiller, the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief and a nationally respected American Indian leader, passed away April 6 just weeks after the announcement that she had been diagnosed with stage IV metastatic pancreatic cancer; she was 64.

Among her many honors, Mankiller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998 and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. She served 12 years in elective office at the Cherokee Nation, including two as deputy principal chief and 10 as principal chief, retiring from public office in 1995, but remaining active in education, advocacy and national Indian affairs.

Mankiller was born at Hastings Indian Hospital in Tahlequah, Okla., Nov. 18, 1945 and grew up in Adair County at Mankiller Flats, her grandfather’s original land allotment. One of 10 children of Charley Mankiller and Clara Irene Sitton-Mankiller, her great-grandparents on her father’s side were among those removed from their southeastern homelands and pushed along the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory in the late 1830s. There, in present-day Adair County, the family made a new home.

At age 11, Mankiller moved with her family to San Francisco, Calif., as part of the federal Urban Indian Relocation Program. The program, which was hailed as a means of supplying Indian families with job training, employment, educational and economic opportunities that they did not have on rural reservations, relocated more than 100,000 American Indians to a handful of urban centers. The Mankiller family was sent to San Francisco, where they ended up in a housing project in the poverty-stricken Hunter’s Point district.

Despite the shortcomings of the program, Mankiller looked back on her time in the city as a valuable experience.

In a 2008 interview with Dick Pryor of Oklahoma Educational Television Authority, she said, “I learned a lot of lessons in San Francisco and made a lot of very lasting and important friendships there. … (It was) a time of great political change in this country. There was a huge free speech movement going on at Berkeley. There was the huge pro- and anti-war movement relative to Vietnam. The Civil Rights Movement was going full swing. Native American people were beginning to stand up and advocate for recognition of treaty rights and tribal sovereignty, so it was an incredible time.”

The little girl from Mankiller Flats grew into a dynamic young woman in San Francisco, taking part in community organizing, youth leadership, participating in the Occupation of Alcatraz, and finally securing a job as a social worker at the Urban Indian Child Resource Center, a grass-roots community service organization established in 1972. Although she found Bay Area life exciting and the good friends she made stimulating, she said she always knew she was destined to go back to Oklahoma.

Back at home in 1976, armed with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences, she was hired by the Cherokee Nation as a recruiter for Oscar Rose Junior College (now Rose State College) in Midwest City, Okla. She continued to dabble in community development, her main interest, and by 1977, had been promoted to work with the tribe’s new community planning and development operation.

A year later, thinking to further her formal education in community planning, she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Arkansas. But then tragedy struck. On an early morning commute, she was involved in a head-on collision which crushed her legs and left her near death. Ironically, the driver of the other vehicle was one of her dear friends, and she was killed instantly. It was a grueling time of mental anguish for her, and the beginning of consistent health problems that would eventually include two kidney transplants, recurring bouts with cancer, and a struggle with Myasthenia gravis.

She was unable to complete her graduate work, but over the years she acquired a number of honorary doctoral degrees from various universities including Yale, Dartmouth, Smith and Mills.

Her health concerns did not keep her from her work, and in 1981, she was back, heading up a remarkable community development plan in Bell, Okla. From the beginning of the program, she utilized the Native concept of reciprocity to inspire the marginalized community. On learning that the people of Bell most wanted and needed indoor plumbing and an accessible water supply, she made a bargain with them. She would provide supplies, support and engineering help if they would build the system themselves and help with fundraising.

Despite overwhelming skepticism, the community rose to the challenge and the Bell Water and Housing Project was a rousing success. At the same time, Mankiller’s reputation as a savvy, can-do team leader began to blossom. Most importantly, she had empowered the Cherokee people with the traditional spirit of self-reliance and interdependence once again.

In many other projects, Mankiller proved time and again, that she was not afraid to roll up her sleeves and take an active role, earning her the respect and admiration of her fellow tribal members.

In 1983, Principal Chief Ross Swimmer asked Mankiller to join him as his running mate in his upcoming re-election campaign, the first woman to vie for the office of deputy chief. Stunned, she accepted. Subsequently, over the objections of some who opposed the idea of a woman running for the office, the two won the election and Mankiller served as deputy chief for two years until Swimmer resigned in 1985. She then stepped into the role of principal chief, an office she held for 10 years before retiring from politics.

Throughout her life, Mankiller referred to herself as a feminist, and she took her work very seriously. At the same time, she also had a playful side and skillfully indulged in “Indian humor.” For instance, there was the time a student puzzled over how to address her as a female “chief.” She instructed him to call her “Ms. Chief” (mischief). Another student asked about the origins of her last name. She informed him that it was actually a nickname, and that she had earned it.

Whether people agreed with her politics or not, Mankiller was loved by nearly everyone who knew her. She leaves behind an incredible legacy in Oklahoma, and the news of her death has elicited a tidal wave of condolences and expressions of sadness.

“We have lost an inspirational leader and a great American, someone who was truly a legend in her own time,” Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry said. “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. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Mankiller family and Wilma’s many friends and loved ones.”

Dr. Don Betz, Northeastern State University president, described Mankiller as a personal friend and a mentor, one who brought joy to the lives of others. “We are so blessed to have had the privilege to work alongside Wilma Mankiller as part of the NSU community. Her contributions as an advocate for Native American and indigenous peoples worldwide, and her commitment to the role of women in leadership, will continue to inspire individuals in all walks of life and have impact beyond our lifetimes.”

In 2008, historian Albert L. Hurtado worked with Mankiller, editing a book of essays titled after an address she gave at a University of Oklahoma history symposium, “History: Honoring the Past, Building a Future.”

“I found her to be gracious, thoughtful, and strong – attributes that one would expect to find in a true leader,” said Hurtado, who also holds the Travis Chair at OU. “As an historian, I can say that she brought her impressive qualities to bear at a critical moment in Native American history. She became the face and voice of all Native America as well as her Cherokee people. It is hard to imagine that anyone like her will soon come again. It was an honor to know and work with her, even for a brief moment.”

Perhaps we can take comfort in Wilma’s own words written for the epilogue of her autobiography “Mankiller: A Chief and Her People,” at Mankiller Flats in 1994. “I have always liked what it says in the Bible about everything having a season. My season here is coming to an end. I look forward to continuing my journey through the circle of life.”

Mankiller is survived by her husband Charlie Soap, two daughters, Felicia and Gina, and a large extended family. A memorial service has been scheduled for Saturday, April 10 at 11 a.m. at the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds in Tahlequah.

Mankiller requested that any gifts in her honor be made as donations to One Fire Development Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing Native American communities through 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 or at or mailed to One Fire Development Corporation, 1220 Southmore, Houston, TX 77004.