Wilma Mankiller: On the Passing of a Legendary Leader

Many incredible women have danced in and out of my life. They are grandmothers, mothers, daughters, aunts, lovers, friends, sisters, and partners. They have buried husbands and children, faced racism, confronted daunting health problems . . . yet they lead their nations, their families, and their communities with dignity, strength, and optimism. –Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller began her journey to the spirit world on Tuesday April 6, 2010, due to complications from pancreatic cancer. The legendary chief of the largest Indian nation in North America served for ten years from 1985–1995 as the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

Her life and struggles can tell the story of many American Indian activists who came to social consciousness in the turbulent decades of the 1960s and ’70s. She also served as a national voice of all Indian people, focusing on what she called “women’s issues”—health care, education, cultural and language revitalization—at a time when many tribal officials were elbowing each other out of the way to build gambling empires.

She will be missed.

Wilma Mankiller was born in 1945 in the Cherokee Nation capital in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and lived her early life on her grandfather’s allotted lands. She often joked about the significance of her family name, Mankiller, but also noted seriously that the translation into English made the name more ominous than it was in Cherokee. Spelled variously, asgaya dihi was in the old days a military or religious rank carried by Cherokee who served as guardians of the Cherokee way of life. A commensurate example from US politics would be the Congressional “whips” (who might have whipped recalcitrant members in the old days, but now count votes and keep the members walking the party line).

Wilma Mankiller lived up to her name.

She often noted that even after the Removal era of her people from their ancestral homelands in Georgia and the Carolinas, the Cherokee developed an enviable educational system which included women—and a political system that granted rights to women almost a hundred years before the United States saw fit to do the same.

The Mankiller family lands were taken over by the US Army, and they were relocated to San Francisco not long after the end of WWII. Ms. Mankiller sometimes compared her personal history with that of the Cherokee removal. “I cried for days,” she said of a family move to the West coast, “not unlike the children who had stumbled down the Trail of Tears so many years before. I wept tears… tears from my history, from my tribe’s past. They were Cherokee tears.”

She married and had children but the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1968–69, led her back to college and work as an organizer among the Indians of California. It wasn’t long before she decided to take her talents and renewed fire for change back to Oklahoma to work for the Cherokee people.

In 1983, Wilma was elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation and moved to Principal Chief in 1985 when Ross Swimmer resigned to become the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She was elected Principal Chief in her own right in both 1987 and 1991, in a landslide election where she garnered 83% of the vote.

Her election and tenure as an elected official of the Cherokee was not without controversy. During her early campaigns she received death threats and had her tires slashed, but she prevailed. And I recall that her elections electrified women and girls throughout Indian Country, inspiring them with the conviction that they too could emerge as leaders of their tribes and nations.

Throughout those hard times she managed to maintain her sense of humor. She often recounted a story of a visit to an Eastern college where a young man assigned to escort her to and from the scheduled events struggled with what title to use in addressing her. On the ride in from the airport he speculated aloud if her title should be “Chiefteness,” maybe “Chiefette.” Finally, without cracking a smile, she suggested that she should be addressed as the politically correct “Ms. Chief.”

Services and burial for Ms. Mankiller will be held Saturday April 10, 2010 at the Cherokee Nation ceremonial Grounds in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.