Wilma Mankiller died today at age 64 of pancreatic cancer. She was the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Though Mankiller was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, she spent much of her childhood in San Francisco, California. According to Biography.com, it was here that she first became interested Native American causes, inspired by the attempt of Native Americans to reclaim Alcatraz Island in the 1960's. She returned to Oklahoma in 1976 and worked for the Cherokee Nation as a tribal planner and program developer. In 1983, she ran for deputy chief. And after only two years at the deputy post, became the principal chief of the tribe.
Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
According to CNN.com, Mankiller was a highly effective leader and advocate for her people. She is credited with improving health care, education and tribal governance during her 10 years of service. The New York Times said the Cherokee Nation tripled in size and employment doubled during her tenure.
A Salon.com post focused on Mankiller’s contribution to feminist causes as an author, lecturer and co-author and friend to Gloria Steinem. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton in 1998.
Mankiller was a friend and hero to many. Her words of inspiration reached far beyond the Cherokee Nation:
About education, she said,
I don't think anybody anywhere can talk about the future of their people or of an organization without talking about education. Whoever controls the education of our children controls their future.
About self-determination, she said,
I think the most important issue we have as a people is what we started, and that is to begin to trust our own thinking again and believe in ourselves enough to think that we can articulate our own vision of the future and then work to make sure that that vision becomes a reality.
About the importance of her accomplishments, she said,
Prior to my election, young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up and become chief.
About her fight with pancreatic cancer, she said,
I want my family and friends to know that I am mentally and physically prepared for this journey; a journey that all human beings will take at one time or another ... On balance, I have been blessed with an extraordinarily rich and wonderful life, filled with incredible experiences ...
About the extraordinary leadership that Mankiller exemplified, her successor as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Chad Smith, said in a statement issued today on the Cherokee Nation official site:
We feel overwhelmed and lost when we realize she has left us but we should reflect on what legacy she leaves us. We are better people and a stronger tribal nation because her example of Cherokee leadership, statesmanship, humility, grace, determination and decisiveness.
According to Smith's statement, Wilma Mankiller is survived by her husband, Charlie Soap, and her children, Gina and Felicia.
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