TAHLEQUAH – Ask anyone anywhere in the U.S. if they can name a Cherokee woman and Wilma Mankiller would probably get the most mentions.
During her 1985-95 tenure as the Cherokee Nation’s first and only – to date – woman principal chief, she became a nationally recognized public figure. She was also an activist for Native rights and an author.
“I’ve run into more discrimination as a woman than as an Indian,” Mankiller once said.
Throughout her life, Mankiller chipped away at some of that undeserved stigma – toward women and Natives.
She also said: “A lot of young girls have looked to their career paths and have said they’d like to be chief. There’s been a change in the limits people see.”
In 1998, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, the highest civilian honor awarded by the executive branch.
It isn’t only women who can find guidance or inspiration in the actions and efforts of Mankiller.
“Former Principal Chief Mankiller was the first woman elected as chief of a major Native tribe, and she is also a direct descendent of the Cherokees who survived the Trail of Tears,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.
Hoskin called her life “nothing short of remarkable.”
“She was raised in a home with no electricity or running water, yet she grew up and became a young activist determined to bring attention to the mistreatment of Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. government,” he said. “She was passionate about improving Natives’ access to education, health care services, and economic opportunity. When she served the Cherokee Nation as principal chief, infant mortality plummeted, employment doubled and living conditions vastly improved. To this day, her life and her achievements inspire me to always remember our Cherokee roots, and to strive to improve the lives of my fellow Cherokees not just in the short term, but for generations to come.”
Like any politician, Mankiller had her supporters and detractors. But she also put a modern face on Native America. She put a figurative beatdown on the stereotypes of Hollywood and the American public. Twentieth century Natives weren’t traveling by horse and living under buffalo hides. They had governments, lands – even sovereignty. They also had their share of problems, usually exacerbated by economic disadvantage and discrimination, which she and others sought to mitigate within the CN.
The Talking Leaves Job Corps operates today because Mankiller convinced the U.S. Department of Labor and tribal councilors to keep it open. She was awarded the John W. Gardner Leadership Award in recognition of her community development initiatives and her oversight of Cherokee Nation Industries, which saw its profits surpass $2 million per year early in her first elected term. She was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. During her tenure, the citizenship of the CN grew by 102,000 to 170,000. In 2009, she was named the fellow of the Sequoyah Institute at Northeastern State University.
When asked to send a pair of shoes to a Native American art exhibit, she reportedly sent a pair of ordinary walking shoes, claiming they were the normal shoes she wore everywhere.
“Remember that I am just a woman who is living a very abundant life,” Mankiller said. “Every step I take forward is on a path paved by strong Indian women before me.”
Mankiller died on April 6, 2010, at age 64. Although there is a headstone for her at the Echota Cemetery near Stilwell, she was cremated and her ashes were spread by her family along the spring running through Mankiller Flats.
Women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem and Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry attended her funeral, which received messages from President Barack Obama, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.