Wilma Mankiller, Lead On

Leader of the Cherokee Nation for a decade, Wilma Mankiller set a new standard and a challenge for all Native American women.

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Wilma Mankiller, a great American Indian leader has walked on.  After struggling with metastatic pancreatic cancer, she died at her home April 6 in Adair County, Oklahoma, at the age of 64, surrounded by friends and relatives.

According to the Washington Post, “Ms. Mankiller, principal chief of the Cherokee from 1985 to 1995, tripled her tribe’s enrollment, doubled employment and built new housing, health centers and children’s programs in northeast Oklahoma, where most of the 200,000 or so tribal members live. In 1990, she signed an unprecedented agreement in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs surrendered direct control over millions of dollars in federal funding to the tribe.”

Born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Wilma and her family took part in the massive Indian relocation program of the ‘50s and ‘60s, moving to San Francisco in the 1950s where they lived in a public housing project. Like so many other young Indian people of the day, she was politicized by this experience and participated in activism, including the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969 when she and others took control of the former federal prison.  Activists described the conditions on the island as remarkable — like those on the country’s Indian reservations, e.g. no running water, no electricity and no government services.  The occupation helped draw national attention to conditions in Indian Country.

Wilma returned to her tribe in Oklahoma in the 1970s and went on to be the first woman to lead the Cherokee.

Native Americans occupied Alcatraz in late 1969, reclaiming it as Indian land and galvanizing a national movement. Wilma Mankiller was one of scores of Indian youths who took part.


President Obama issued a statement about Wilma’s passing: “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.”

Sue Masten, former chairwoman of the Yurok Nation and past president of the National Congress of American Indians wrote about Wilma in Indian Country Today.

“She encouraged women to take risks, to stand up for things they believe in, and to accept the challenge of serving in leadership role,” wrote Masten. “Many women are now leaders of their tribes because of her, and we honor her and her family today for her many contributions to women, and Indian country.” A pretty powerful lady herself, Masten is co-founder of Women Empowering Indian Nations that has organized the Wilma Mankiller Scholarship Fund to provide leadership development opportunities for Native women everywhere.

Chad Smith, current principal of the Cherokee Nation, said, “We are better people and a stronger tribal nation because her example of Cherokee leadership, statesmanship, humility, grace, determination and decisiveness.”

The Internet has been filled these past few days with many similar stories and memorials to this incredible woman, detailing her accomplishments and triumph over a hardscrabble beginning. Wilma was indeed an impressive woman, the first woman to lead her tribe in modern times; she broke all the norms in Indian Country and beyond regarding the roles of women.

I first met Wilma in Portland, Oregon, when I was working as a staff photographer for the daily paper there. Humble and down-to-earth, she seemed more interested in hearing about me and my life as a native journalist working at a mainstream newspaper than in telling me about her accomplishments. But that was how Wilma was. Although I don’t’ see it included in any of the memorial articles, Wilma really liked Motown music. I joined her and a group of women at a Patti Labelle performance in Atlanta during the first Unity: Journalists of Color Conference. I was blown away to see a chief rocking out with the girls. She was a very real woman who saw herself as one of a community.


Charles Jones, for the Oklahoman
Wilma Mankiller and her daughters, Gina Quinton (left) and Felicia Olaya.

Wilma battled numerous health problems through her life, including breast cancer and lymphoma, a kidney transplant and a host of other operations after a car crash.

Last March, her husband, Charlie Soap, announced that Wilma had stage 4 metastatic pancreatic cancer and released this statement from Wilma: “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.”

Concerned with others and her community, she was a class act right to end. I will miss you, Wilma,  chi migwiich (thanks a lot) for breaking the trail for me and the other American Indian women who follow.

 

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