Swimmer and Ketcher speak of serving with Mankiller
4/14/2010 7:38:28 AM
By Jami Custer
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Two men who worked extremely close with the late Wilma Mankiller during her political career were former Principal Chief Ross Swimmer and former Deputy Chief John A. Ketcher. Both men spoke of their relationships with her during an April 10 memorial service at the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds. 

Swimmer recalled on how Mankiller got her start at Cherokee Nation.

“When Wilma walked into my office and told me she had recently moved back to Oklahoma…she said, ‘I want to work for the Cherokee Nation. I want to do something for my tribe.’ Well it was pretty obvious to me that she was sincere and I thought that she’d make a good hand.”

He said he hired her for community work and planning, but ended up counting on her to do whatever needed to be done. He said Mankiller was instrumental in getting 16 miles of waterline laid in the Bell community as a self-help project.

“It was a learning experience for all of us and Wilma took it to heart,” Swimmer said. “She said this is the way the Cherokees should work and work together. And I said, ‘ well Wilma, let’s just make this a standard for the Cherokee Nation. Let’s create this Community Development Department and let’s do this from now on.’”

Swimmer said she took the position in the new department and everything they did from then on involved the people and her motivation to get the work done.

He also spoke of when he asked her to run for the deputy chief seat for the 1983 election. Mankiller won the seat and Swimmer was re-elected as principal chief. They served together from 1983-85. In 1985, Swimmer took a Bureau of Indian Affairs job and Mankiller assumed the principal chief position. However, before the 1983 election, Swimmer said she had no idea he was going to ask her to run as his deputy chief candidate.

“She was taken back and said, ‘let me think about it.’ I did not give a thought to the fact that she was a woman. I thought she was the best candidate that I had available to run and that she would do a wonderful job,” he said. 

“Sometimes the Creator puts us in the right place at the right time, and I was in the right place 34 years ago when I met Wilma,” he added.

Ketcher, who served as deputy chief under Mankiller from 1985-95, said she was like a family member from the day they entered office together. However, Ketcher didn’t really know Mankiller two years before serving as her deputy chief.

“This lady stopped me in the hallway and asked what I thought the chances of Wilma becoming the deputy chief to Chief Swimmer. Since I didn’t even know that Wilma was an employee of the Cherokee Nation or anything about her work history, my answer was no opinion.”

He said as the campaign heated up, he learned of her work and what she had done for the CN. 

“The voters liked what they heard also and the Swimmer/Mankiller ticket was successful. I, too, had entered the race for one of the seats for the 15-member Cherokee Nation Council at that time. I garnered enough votes to get the 15th seat, the last one that was available.”

Once Swimmer took the BIA job and Mankiller became principal chief, the council chose Ketcher to replace her as deputy chief for the rest of the 1983-87 term. Mankiller picked Ketcher as her deputy chief candidate for the 1987 election, and again in 1991.

“We went to the people for our term of four years on our own. We ran together as a team. Voters must have approved of what was happening and we were elected.”

Ketcher said she always reminded him to talk with the people, not to the people.

“See what they’re thinking because they have opinions, too,” he said. “This included everybody, especially the elders.”

Reach Staff Writer Jami Custer at (918) 453-5560 or jami-custer@cherokee.org
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