2019 marks 15th year of Holland’s death
Cherokee Nation citizen Fern Holland smiles for a photo while on assignment in Iraq earlier this century. Holland was killed in Iraq on March 9, 2004, while working with Iraqi women. COURTESY
TAHLEQUAH – March 9 marks the 15-year anniversary of the death of Fern Leona Holland, a Cherokee Nation citizen and women’s activist, who was killed in Iraq while helping Iraqi women gain their freedom.
Born in 1970, Holland, 33, grew up in Bluejacket in Craig County and Miami in Ottawa County.
In May 2003, she went to Iraq as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority to document human rights violations and preserve evidence that could be used for possible war crime tribunals.
Published reports state that she was known as an advocate for Iraqi women’s rights and drafted language in the Iraqi constitution for the coalition government that protected women’s rights and guaranteed women a position within that government, which made her a target for Iraqi extremists who opposed such roles for women.
Holland, along with fellow civilian worker Robert J. Zangas, of Pittsburgh, and Iraqi translator Salwa Ourmashi, were stopped at a roadblock in Hillah, near Baghdad, and shot to death. Reports claim that Polish military later found the vehicle of the six Iraqi men who committed the crimes. Four of them were identified as police officers. Reports also stated the victims’ bodies were hidden in the vehicle that had been stopped.
Holland and Zangas were the first U.S. civilians to be killed in the occupation authority in Iraq.
In 1992, Holland graduated from the University of Oklahoma with honors. She then studied at the University of Tulsa School of law and graduated in 1996 with honors. After working at Connor & Winters, a law firm in Tulsa, she pursued her life of public service while working in the Peace Corps.
In Namibia, West Africa, she helped organize legal aid clinics for children and women refugees, as well as provided other legal work, HIV education and training and much more to help women and children.
Since Holland’s murder she has been commemorated in different ways. She received the 2004 Oklahoman of the Year title by Oklahoma Today magazine. Also, the Tribal Council and former Principal Chief Chad Smith honored her courageous acts and commitments to basic human rights in 2004.
There have also been honors and awards named after her, including the Fern Holland Award from Vital Voices, the Fern L. Holland Memorial Scholarship at OU and the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Fern Holland Courageous Lawyer Award. She also received awards following her death, including the Heroic Oklahoman Award and the Secretary of Defense Medal.
Christopher Buckley’s novel “Florence of Arabia” pays homage to Holland in the acknowledgments. Buckley is said to describe Holland as being the “real-life Florence of Arabia.”