Today, we mourn the loss of a leader.
This morning the first female chief of the Cherokee nation, Wilma Mankiller, passed away at the age of 64.
Mankiller fought for Native Americans with righteousness. Over the course of her 10 year term as Chief, Mankiller successfully tripled Cherokee enrollment, doubled employment, and built new health centers and children’s programs. Mankiller even managed to bring presidential attention to the often-overlooked problems facing Native Americans by meeting with President Ronald Reagan, President George HW Bush, and President Clinton. For her humanitarian accomplishments, President Bill Clinton presented Mankiller with the nation’s highest civilian award – the Presidential Medal of Freedom – in 1998.
Beyond her accomplishments for Cherokees’ welfare, Wilma Mankiller served as a shining example of a strong women leader. Facing snide remarks about her surname – a traditional Cherokee military rank – in stride, Mankiller often joked “Mankiller is actually a well-earned nickname.” And despite a near fatal car accident, male-domination in the Cherokee nation leadership, numerous medical troubles including a muscular disorder, and family economic hardship in her youth, Mankiller persevered to lead the Cherokee nation. Upon learning of her cancer diagnosis, Mankiller declared herself “mentally and spiritually prepared for this journey.”
In reflecting upon her legacy in her autobiography Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, Mankiller writes:
“Friends describe me as someone who likes to sing and dance along the edge of the roof. 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.”
Along the way to greatness, Mankiller found an ally and partner in WMC co-founder Gloria Steinem. Inspired to raise unheard voices, the two collaborated with other authors to write Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women and A Reader’s Companion to the History of Women in the U.S.. Mankiller and Steinem became such good friends that Steinem’s marriage ceremony ten years ago was held at Mankiller’s home in Oklahoma.
Wilma Mankiller is survived by her husband Charlie Soap and her two daughters. Our thoughts are with her family and friends at this time.
sing and dance at the edge of a roof: chief wilma mankiller, 1945-2010
From the Women's Media Center, April 6: