Wilma Mankiller, Lead On
[imgbelt img=mankillerwilma530.jpg]Leader of the Cherokee Nation for a decade, Wilma Mankiller set a new standard and a challenge for all Native American women.
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.
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.