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Webmaster's Blog - Native American Resources

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller Dies

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller, one of the few women ever to lead a major American Indian tribe, has died. She was 64.

Tribal spokesman Mike Miller said Mankiller, who became one of the nation's most visible American Indian leaders during her 10 years as chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, died Tuesday.

Mankiller had battled lymphoma, breast cancer and several other health problems. On March 2, 2010, Mankiller's husband, Charlie Soap, announced that his wife had stage 4 metastatic pancreatic cancer.

As the first female chief of the Cherokees, serving from 1985 to 1995, Mankiller led the tribe in tripling its enrollment, doubling employment and building new health centers and children's programs.

Her first taste of federal policy toward Indians came in the 1950s when her family participated in a government relocation program and ended up in a housing project. As chief, she took Indian issues to the White House and met with three presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Mankiller earned a reputation for facing conflict head-on.

She met snide remarks about her surname -- a Cherokee military title -- with humor, often delivering a straight-faced, ''Mankiller is actually a well-earned nickname.''

Continual struggles with her health appeared not to deter her. A 1979 car accident nearly claimed her life and resulted in 17 operations. She developed a muscular disorder called myasthenia gravis and underwent a kidney transplant in 1990.

Mankiller used some hospital stays to work on her autobiography with Michael Wallis called ''Mankiller: A Chief and Her People,'' which came out in 1993.

After the announcement that she had pancreatic cancer, Mankiller said she was ''mentally and spiritually prepared for this journey.''

''I learned a long time ago that I can't control the challenges the creator sends my way, but I can control the way I think about them and deal with them,'' she said in a March 2010 statement released by the tribe.

''On balance, I have been blessed with an extraordinarily rich and wonderful life, filled with incredible experiences.''

Mankiller succeeded former Chief Ross Swimmer, who left at midterm in 1985 for a job in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She was re-elected in a landslide four years later, with 83 percent of the vote. She decided not to seek re-election in 1995 and accepted a teaching position at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., where she held an honorary degree.

Among her other honors was a Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the nation's highest civilian award -- presented by Clinton in 1998.

Born at W.W. Hastings Indian Hospital in Tahlequah, Mankiller moved with her family to San Francisco in the 1950s when their farm in Adair County failed. The pledge of opportunity turned out to be a life of poverty in a housing project.

She married Ecuadoran accountant Hector Olaya in 1963, and they had two daughters, Felicia, born in 1964, and Gina, born in 1966.

Mankiller moved back to her family's land in Oklahoma after divorcing Olaya in 1975, and she married Soap in 1986.

In 1969, she got what she called ''an enormous wake-up call'' and took her first step into Indian activism by participating in the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island.

Seventy-nine Native Americans took over the site of the former federal prison to protest a policy that terminated the federal government's recognition of tribal sovereignty and the exclusion of Indians from state laws. The policy was based on the belief that Native Americans would be better off if they assimilated as individuals into mainstream American society. Federal officers removed the remaining protesters in June 1971.

As chief, Mankiller was less of an activist and more of a pragmatist. She was criticized for focusing almost exclusively on social programs, instead of pushing for smoke shops and high-stakes gaming.

In her autobiography, Mankiller said she wanted to be remembered not just for being the tribe's first female chief but for emphasizing that Cherokee values can help solve contemporary problems.

''Friends describe me as someone who likes to dance along the edge of the roof,'' she wrote. ''I try to encourage young women to be willing to take risks, to stand up for the things they believe in, and to step up and accept the challenge of serving in leadership roles.''

A memorial service has been scheduled for Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds in Tahlequah.

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