Former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller, one of the nation’s most visible Native American leaders and one of the few women to lead a major tribe, died Tuesday at her home in Adair County, Okla. She was 64 and had pancreatic cancer.
Mankiller, whose first taste of federal policy toward Native Americans came when her family ended up in a housing project after a government relocation project, took Native American issues to the White House and met with three presidents. She earned a reputation for facing conflict head-on.
As the first female chief of the Cherokees, from 1985 to 1995, Mankiller led the tribe in tripling its enrollment, doubling employment and building health centers and children’s programs.
“We feel overwhelmed and lost when we realize she has left us, but we should reflect on what legacy she leaves us,” Cherokee Chief Chad Smith said. “We are better people and a stronger tribal nation” because of her example “of Cherokee leadership, statesmanship, humility, grace, determination and decisiveness.”
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 the muscular disorder myasthenia gravis, had a kidney transplant in 1990 and had also battled lymphoma, breast cancer and other health problems.
Mankiller, whose surname was a Cherokee military title, used some hospital stays to work on her autobiography with Michael Wallis, which came out in 1993. In “Mankiller: A Chief and Her People,” she 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.”
“We have lost an inspirational leader and a great American, someone who was truly a legend in her own time,” Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry said. “As a leader and a person, Chief Wilma Mankiller continually defied the odds and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to better her tribe, her state and her nation.”
Born Nov. 18, 1945, at an Indian hospital in Tahlequah, Okla., Mankiller moved with her family to San Francisco in the 1950s when their farm failed. The pledge of opportunity turned out to be poverty in a housing project. She married and had two daughters, Felicia and Gina.
In 1969, she got what she called “an enormous wake-up call” and took her first step into activism by participating in the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island.
A group of 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 Native Americans from state laws. The policy was based on the belief that Native Americans would be better off if they assimilated as individuals into mainstream society.
Mankiller moved back to her family’s land in Oklahoma after getting divorced in 1975. A decade later, she succeeded former Chief Ross Swimmer, who had selected her as his running mate because of her business savvy. During her reelection campaign, she pledged to improve the tribe’s economic interests.
As chief of the Tahlequah-based tribe, 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.
Mankiller decided not to seek reelection in 1995, and accepted a teaching position at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Among her honors was a Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the nation’s highest civilian award -- presented in 1998.
Besides her daughters, survivors include her husband, Charlie Soap, as well as four grandchildren and great-grandchildren.