Remembering Wilma Mankiller, Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma

Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to be elected chief of a major American Indian tribe,  who led the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995,  died of pancreatic cancer on the sixth of April at her home near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, at the age of sixty-four.

I have the fondest memories of visiting with her in August 1991, on assignment for PARADE magazine, and reprint my article here as a tribute to a wonderful person whose presence among us is now so greatly missed:


“MY LIFE MAY BE UNUSUAL, BUT not to the Indian world,” says Chief Wilma Mankiller, 45, whose name goes back to that of a Cherokee warnor. “My ability to survive personal crises is really a mark of the character of my people. Individually and collectively, we react with a tenacity that allows us again and again to bounce back from adversity.”

The first woman to become principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, she speaks softly but with an undercurrent of urgency and commitment. From the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah in northeast Oklahoma’s “green country,” where she was born, Wilma Mankiller
guides the second-largest Indian nation in the U.S. (only the Navajo Nation is larger), with a population of more than 120,000, an annual budget of $54 million and more than 800 employees spread across 7000 square miles.

“It’s like running a big corporation and a little country at the same time,” she says with a laugh.

Today, wearing an orange blouse and purple skirt in her office at the tribal headquarters, the chief gives no sign of having had a bout with myasthenia gravis after a car accident in 1979; and while her face is puffy from medication following a kidney transplant last year, she radiates health and energy.

Chief Mankiller’s rapid rise to Cherokee power – and her accomplishments in economic development, health care and tribal self-governance – already are legendary in the Native American commu nity. She has helped develop new projects from waterlines to nutrition programs, from rural health clinics to a $9 million vocational training center.

Mankiller freely admits, meanwhile, that her people face a continuing crisis in housing, that too many Cherokee youngsters still drop out of high school, that unemployment remains about 15 per cent and that decades of low self-esteem cannot be reversed overnight.

Wilma Mankiller

“Although we’ve been affected by a lot of historical factors,” she insists, “nobody’s going to pull us out but ourselves.” In 1975, nearly all Cherokee income came from the federal government, but today more than 50 percent of the tribe’s revenues are from its own enterprises, such as an electronics plant.

While leading her tribe to greater self-reliance, Mankiller draws inner strength from the values passed down to her through generations. In many ways, her own life uncannily reflects the historic struggle of the Cherokee Nation itself.

One of eleven children, Mankiller spent her earliest years on “allotted” Oklahoma land amid woodsy hills without electricity or running water. Her full-blood Cherokee father, who married a Dutch-Irish woman, was directly related to the tribal members who had been forcibly removed from their original homeland in the southeastern Appalachian states.

That exodus in the winter of 1838-39 turned to tragedy as some 18,000 Cherokees, suffering from hunger and disease, trudged westward and left about 4000 dead on “the trail where they cried,” later called the Trail of Tears.

The Trail of Tears

“We knew about it from family stories,” Mankiller says, recalling how one of her aunts had a cooking utensil from ancestors on the trail. “Later we learned how our people had left behind their homes and farms, their political and social systems, everything they had known, and how the survivors had come here in disarray — but how, despite all that, they
had begun almost immediately to rebuild.”

When Mankiller was 12, in 1957, her family was again relocated — in this case, by a federal program designed to “urbanize” rural Indians. Sent from the Oklahoma countryside to a poverty-stricken, high-crime neighborhood in San Francisco, they were jammed into “a very rugged” housing project.  Like their ancestors, they were forced to start over.

“My father refused to believe that he had to leave behind his tribal culture to make it in the larger society,” Mankiller recalls, “so he retained a strong sense of identity.  Our family arguments were never personal but about some social or political idea. That stimulating atmosphere, of reading and debating, set the framework for me.”

During the l960s, Wilma Mankiller got married and had two children. She also studied sociology at San Francisco State University. In 1969, when members of the American Indian Movement took over the former prison at Alcatraz to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans, she experienced an awakening that, she says, ultimately
changed the course of her life.

“I’d never heard anyone actually tell the world that we needed somebody to pay attention to our treaty rights,” she explains. “That our people had given up an entire continent, and many lives, in return for basic services like health care and education, but nobody was honoring those agreements. For the first time, people were saying things I felt but
hadn’t known how to articulate. It was very liberating.”

So, in the 1970s, Wilma Mankiller began doing volunteer work among Native Americans in the Bay Area. Learning about tribal governance and its history compelled her to take a fresh look at the Cherokee experience; and what she saw, in terms of broken promises and despair, made her deeply angry.

After the Trail of Tears in 1839, rebuilding by the tribe in Oklahoma proceeded with the creation of a government, courts, newspapers and schools. But this “golden era” ended with the Civil War, followed by the western land rush by settlers who devoured Cherokee holdings. In 1907, Washington gave all remaining Indian territory to the state of Oklahoma
and abolished the Cherokees’ right to self-government. “We fell into a long decline,” Mankiller says, “until, by the 1960s, we had come to feel there was something wrong with being an Indian.”

Not until 1975 did U.S. legislation grant the Cherokees self-determination. As rebuilding began yet again, Mankiller’s own transformation was progressing as well. In 1977, after being divorced, she returned with her children to Oklahoma.

A Woman with a Big Heart

Working in community development, Mankiller saw that the tribe’s need for adequate housing, employment, educa tion and health care was staggering. She helped to procure grants and initiate services; but, she says, she was still angry and bitter over conditions — not yet the calm, introspective woman capable of leading the Cherokee Nation.

Then, in the fall of 1979. an oncoming car collided with her Station wagon. She regained consciousness in the hospital, with her face crushed, ribs broken and legs shattered.

Months of recovery included a series of operations and plastic surgery on her face. Then she developed myasthenia gravis, which sent her nerves out of control.  Surgery on her thymus was followed by steroid therapy. Yet, in December 1980 — just over a year after the accident — she went back to work.

In a profound way, however, Wilma Mankiller was a different person. “It was a life-changing experience,” she says. To sustain herself through recovery, she explains, she drew upon precepts that the Cherokee elders had taught her:

“Have a good mind. No matter what situation you’re in, find something good about it, rather than the negative things. And in dealing with other human beings, find the good in them as well.”

“We are all interdependent. Do things for others — tribe, family, community — rather than just for yourself.”

“Look forward. Turn what has been done into a better path. If you’re a leader, think about the impact of your decisions on seven generations into the future.”

The same woman who had been im mobilized became a bundle of energy relentlessly focused on getting things done. After she helped obtain a grant enabling rural Cherokees to build their own 26- mile waterline, male leaders took notice. By 1983, she was being asked to run for election as deputy chief. Two years after that victory, when Chief Ross Swimmer was named head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Mankiller became the principal chief.

Then, in the 1987 election, she ran for a full four-year term, becoming the first woman elected as Cherokee chief.

“Wilma is a breath of fresh air in In dian leadership,” says Peterson Zah, 58, president of the Navajo Nation and a friend. “She is a visionary who is very aggressive about achieving the goals she has in mind for her people. She truly cares about others.”

As chief, Mankiller works 14-hour days filled with meetings in Tahlequah and frequent twin-engine flights to the state capital in Oklahoma City; and she is often in Washington, D.C., lobbying Congress. Her second husband, Charlie Soap, a full-blood Cherokee, keeps up a similar pace developing community programs. “We can’t wait until the end of the day,” Mankiller says, “to tell each other what went on.”

They had long talks before Wilma de cided to run for a second full term in June. Her recent kidney transplant was successful (the donor was her oldest brother, Donald Mankiller), but she has yearned to do more “hands on” work in rural communities; and there have been enticing offers to teach.

“Committing to another four years was a big decision,” she says. “Basically it came down to the fact that there are so many programs in place that have been started but aren’t yet finished.”

On June 15 — with 83 percent of the vote — Wilma Mankiller was re-elected for four years, beginning Aug. 14.

As she starts her second term, Mankiller sees clearly the depth of problems of her own people, but her vision also includes a national agenda for all Native Americans,whose emerging leadership has heartened her.

One afternoon recently, Mankiller joined other tnbal chiefs in Okiahoma City in a meeting with the governor’s staff about a plan to tax Indian-owned stores.  During a long discussion, Chief Mankiller kept silent; but when she finally spoke up, it was in a way typical of her strong yet quiet leadership.  “I suggest you look at existing tribal contributions to the state,” she said in a soft voice, “and decide not to impose any new taxes on us. This is an opportunity for the state to begin a new day, an era of peace and friendship, with the tribes. Deciding against a tax would send a clear signal to the Indian population with long-term, positive impact.”

Although the decision was left hanging and has yet to be resolved, in a single stroke Mankiller had elevated the meeting’s theme. Then she was off to board a small airplane back to Tahlequah.

Flying over the lush green country side where her people have lived for a century and a half, she could see the Cherokee Nation spread beneath her.

“We can look back over the 500 years since Columbus stumbled onto this continent and see utter devastation among our people,” she says. “But as we approach the 21st century, we are very hopeful. Despite everything, we survive in 1991 as a culturally distinct group. Our tribal institutions are strong. And I think we can be confident that, 500 years from now, someone like Wilma Mankilier will say that our languages and ceremonies from time immemorial still survive.”

As her plane descended, some children paused briefly to glance upward before returning to their lives and to the “new day” that Wilma Mankiller was trying to create for them.

The chief was home.