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By Rob Capriccioso
Story Published: Apr 8, 2010

WASHINGTON With a last name like hers, some say Wilma Mankiller was destined for the history books.

But many friends and admirers nationwide arent waiting for those historical tomes to be written. Thousands of newspaper articles, Internet messages, and other tributes and remembrances have already surfaced in honor of the first woman elected to lead the Cherokee Nation, who passed away at age 64 on April 6 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

The outpouring of adulation, which has included praise-filled statements from President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is not surprising to those who knew her best.

She had the uncanny ability to make people in Native America and beyond feel like she was talking right to them, said Tom Holm, a longtime friend and noted Native American scholar.

She was one of the great American Indian thinkers. We have lost a voice that cant easily be replaced.

It was through her tribal roots that Mankiller became a nationally known figure after her service as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, which began in 1985. She served with great popularity in that position for 10 years, and was deputy principal chief for two years before that.

Her legacy at the Cherokee Nation, which opened its enrollment during her leadership to ultimately become the second largest tribe in the United States, is firmly entrenched. It was under her tenure that multiple educational, health and economic development initiatives took hold.

Among Mankillers many successes, she oversaw the substantial revitalization of the tribe, including several new free-standing health clinics, an $11 million Job Corps Center, and greatly expanded services for children and youth. She also led the team that developed the core of whats now known as Cherokee Nation Enterprises.

Chad Smith, current Cherokee Nation principal chief, said after her passing that his tribe is a stronger tribal nation because of her example of Cherokee leadership, statesmanship, humility, grace, determination and decisiveness.

Mankillers legacy extended far beyond the borders of her tribe. A heroine of the womens rights movement, she spent countless hours devoted to philanthropic work after her time as chief, serving on numerous minority and women-focused boards, including those of the Ford Foundation, the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Seventh Generation Fund, Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations and the Freedom Forum.

She also wrote two books about her life and heritage, and taught numerous Native American studies courses at learning institutions throughout the nation.

Susan Masten, founder and co-president of WEWIN, said Mankillers tireless advocacy on behalf of Native American females was but one spoke in her wheel of influence.

She really did so much to improve the lives of so many, said Masten, who invited Mankiller to serve as a founding board member of WEWIN in 2004. Yes, womens issues are a huge part of her legacy, but she was a pioneer in so many ways.

When Mankiller decided to retire from the tribe in 1995, still as popular as ever, she hinted at her journeys yet to come, citing the biblical verse, To everything there is a season. My season here is coming to an end.

The New York Times documented that farewell scene, reporting that many tribal employees were in tears at the prospect of losing their beloved leader.

But Mankiller did not dwell on the sadness. She kept her speech short, hugged her friends, and told the Times that she was ready to begin a new chapter. You dont have to have a title or a position to be effective, she said then.

And she was true to those words. Soon after retirement, she returned with conviction to make waves on the national scene, accepting a fellowship at Dartmouth College to teach students and faculty members a smattering of her lifelong messages.

But she wasnt one to go easy on her new friends in academia simply because they had invited her. Instead, she was quick to note the lack of diversity sometimes found in segments of that world.

The people [who] dont have a lot of interaction with minority people or with women in leadership roles or with Native Americans, they are the ones we ought to be talking to, Mankiller told local New Hampshire press.

Many of Mankillers truisms in the years after her two terms as principal chief hit on the importance of sharing Native American realities and wisdom with non-Indians, especially those who have tended to be ignorant.

During a 2008 appearance on National Public Radio, she hinted that much work was left to be done on that matter, discussing the many wrong notions she had encountered about Native America throughout her travels.

I think that in virtually every sector of society, Native people, whether theyre in tribal government or whether theyre in the private sector or an artist, they encounter people every day who have such enormously stupid, ridiculous stereotypes about Native people and have so little accurate information about either the history of Native people or their contemporary lives, she told host Michel Martin.

Mankiller saw herself as a conduit for information, Holm recalled, saying thats part of why she was such a popular Vine Deloria Jr. Scholar at the University of Arizona in 2009.

The students, the professors, everyone was in awe of her, said Holm, himself a longtime scholar at the institution.

I think a lot of them were surprised I knew her, that I could get such a big name to show up, he said with a laugh, noting that they had been friends for many years.

Mankillers time at Dartmouth and Arizona were just two of her many teaching adventures after her days of tribal leadership. In addition to co-writing two books, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People and Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women, she would go on mini-tours of campuses, staying for a few days to share some passages or a speech, and to meet her followers.

Rebecca Tsosie, an Indian law professor at Arizona State University, is one of many fans who fondly remember meeting Mankiller after one of her public inspirational speeches.

There are some people who have this rare quality, I guess luminous is the best word. That is how I will always remember her. She was powerful, but in a way that was so kind, so compassionate.

As amazing as she was, however, she also had a way of just sitting down with you, like an old friend, chatting and laughing about some small thing that struck her as amusing, Tsosie said.

To me, she exemplified a Native womans leadership, both in her manner and in her consistent and unfailing devotion to her family, her people, the land, and the ways in which we are connected to past and future generations. She knew these things, practiced them, and had such a determination to make sure that this would be protected into the future.

Ron Karten, a writer with the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde, was in the audience during one of Mankillers famous public conversations, one she shared with former American Indian Movement leader John Trudell at the University of Oregon in 2005.

Like so many who saw her in such venues, Karten was impressed that despite her health obstacles she carried a cane at that outing she was incredibly knowledgeable and even a little bit feisty.

Mankiller showed some of her spirited energy during that talk with Trudell, lamenting of non-Indians, After hundreds of years of living together, they know so little about us.

And she discussed feminism in contemporary times, saying that every woman figures out her own way to deal with sexism. In her case, she said she made her mark among the men at the table by pulling her own seat up, and getting down to business.

I never thought about being a woman, she remarked. Nobody told me I couldnt do anything.

She also said it was important not to let society define what it is to be a woman.

Girls and women have to have their own identity, not from their boyfriends or husbands. Define it for yourself in your own way, she said.

Sara Gould, Ms. Foundation president, was quite familiar with the tribal leaders role in the womens rights movement, having worked with her for several years when Mankiller served on the board of that organization.

I turned to Wilma many times for ideas on bringing women together, to help us move our shared endeavors forward.

Gould said Mankillers contributions made Native American women much more visible to people who would have had no understanding of them otherwise.

Most Americans havent visited a reservation; they really have little clue about Native Americans. Wilma really was able to speak about her experience, and get other women thinking about it.

Elouise Cobell, no stranger to being a celebrated Indian leader, said she and many Native American women viewed Mankiller as a role model and a pioneer.

She showed that women could aspire to and achieve major leadership positions in our Native communities, the Blackfeet citizen said.

Through Mankillers personal health struggles, including the ramifications of a horrific car accident in 1979, two kidney transplants, lymphoma and breast cancer, she also became an advocate for Indian health issues.

Raining Deer Harjo, an author and motivational speaker, quoted Mankiller in one of her writings focused on surviving breast cancer. She said that it was the courage of people like the former Cherokee chief who helped her make it through her own ordeal.

I still lean on her words.

Larger than any of her commitments to various issues, foundations, books and public appearances, Masten said Mankillers greatest source of satisfaction was her family.

She had a strong Cherokee husband, Charlie Soap, who supported her, went with her everywhere, loved her so much it was a beautiful thing.

And her daughters, Felicia and Gina, were always traveling with her, or helping her in her endeavors. It was through her family that Wilma found the strength to be the courageous woman she was to so many people.

Mankillers extended family, including good friend Gloria Steinem, one of the top leaders of the contemporary womens movement, was also a substantial source of strength, Masten said.

Even after the Cherokee heroine knew she would succumb to pancreatic cancer, she opened herself to the world, sharing her personal e-mail address in her last statement to the public, issued in early March.

I learned a long time ago that I cant control the challenges the Creator sends my way, but I can control the way I think about them and deal with them, Mankiller wrote in her final message.

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.

She continued her advocacy work, striving to get a Native American studies department established at Northeastern State University, at which she was a scholar.

Even in death, Mankiller managed to keep her strong spirit alive, asking that any gifts in her honor be made as donations to One Fire Development Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the economic development of Native American communities.

She definitely wasnt one to rest on her laurels, Holm said. She kept on going until the last day. Now, the next generations have to keep up her pace.

Wilma Mankiller
Wilma Mankiller Speech-Rebuilding the Cherokee Nation


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