WASHINGTON – With a last name like hers, some say Wilma
Mankiller was destined for the history books.
But many friends and admirers nationwide aren’t waiting for
those historical tomes to be written. Thousands of newspaper
articles, Internet messages, and other tributes and
remembrances have already surfaced in honor of the first
woman elected to lead the Cherokee Nation, who passed away
at age 64 on April 6 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
The outpouring of adulation, which has included
praise-filled statements from President Barack Obama, former
President Bill Clinton – who awarded her the Presidential
Medal of Freedom in 1998 – and Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton, is not surprising to those who knew her best.
“She had the uncanny ability to make people in Native
America and beyond feel like she was talking right to them,”
said Tom Holm, a longtime friend and noted Native American
“She was one of the great American Indian thinkers. We have
lost a voice that can’t easily be replaced.”
It was through her tribal roots that Mankiller became a
nationally known figure after her service as principal chief
of the Cherokee Nation, which began in 1985. She served with
great popularity in that position for 10 years, and was
deputy principal chief for two years before that.
Her legacy at the Cherokee Nation, which opened its
enrollment during her leadership to ultimately become the
second largest tribe in the United States, is firmly
entrenched. It was under her tenure that multiple
educational, health and economic development initiatives
Among Mankiller’s many successes, she oversaw the
substantial revitalization of the tribe, including several
new free-standing health clinics, an $11 million Job Corps
Center, and greatly expanded services for children and
youth. She also led the team that developed the core of
what’s now known as Cherokee Nation Enterprises.
Chad Smith, current Cherokee Nation principal chief, said
after her passing that his tribe is a “stronger tribal
nation because of her example of Cherokee leadership,
statesmanship, humility, grace, determination and
Mankiller’s legacy extended far beyond the borders of her
tribe. A heroine of the women’s rights movement, she spent
countless hours devoted to philanthropic work after her time
as chief, serving on numerous minority and women-focused
boards, including those of the Ford Foundation, the Ms.
Foundation for Women, the Seventh Generation Fund, Women
Empowering Women for Indian Nations and the Freedom Forum.
She also wrote two books about her life and heritage, and
taught numerous Native American studies courses at learning
institutions throughout the nation.
Susan Masten, founder and co-president of WEWIN, said
Mankiller’s tireless advocacy on behalf of Native American
females was but one spoke in her wheel of influence.
“She really did so much to improve the lives of so many,”
said Masten, who invited Mankiller to serve as a founding
board member of WEWIN in 2004. “Yes, women’s issues are a
huge part of her legacy, but she was a pioneer in so many
When Mankiller decided to retire from the tribe in 1995,
still as popular as ever, she hinted at her journeys yet to
come, citing the biblical verse, “To everything there is a
season. My season here is coming to an end.”
The New York Times documented that farewell scene, reporting
that many tribal employees were in tears at the prospect of
losing their beloved leader.
But Mankiller did not dwell on the sadness. She kept her
speech short, hugged her friends, and told the Times that
she was ready to begin a new chapter. “You don’t have to
have a title or a position to be effective,” she said then.
And she was true to those words. Soon after retirement, she
returned with conviction to make waves on the national
scene, accepting a fellowship at Dartmouth College to teach
students and faculty members a smattering of her lifelong
But she wasn’t one to go easy on her new friends in academia
simply because they had invited her. Instead, she was quick
to note the lack of diversity sometimes found in segments of
“The people [who] don’t have a lot of interaction with
minority people or with women in leadership roles or with
Native Americans, they are the ones we ought to be talking
to,” Mankiller told local New Hampshire press.
Many of Mankiller’s truisms in the years after her two terms
as principal chief hit on the importance of sharing Native
American realities and wisdom with non-Indians, especially
those who have tended to be ignorant.
During a 2008 appearance on National Public Radio, she
hinted that much work was left to be done on that matter,
discussing the many wrong notions she had encountered about
Native America throughout her travels.
“I think that in virtually every sector of society, Native
people, whether they’re in tribal government or whether
they’re in the private sector or an artist, they encounter
people every day who have such enormously stupid, ridiculous
stereotypes about Native people and have so little accurate
information about either the history of Native people or
their contemporary lives,” she told host Michel Martin.
Mankiller saw herself as a conduit for information, Holm
recalled, saying that’s part of why she was such a popular
Vine Deloria Jr. Scholar at the University of Arizona in
“The students, the professors, everyone was in awe of her,”
said Holm, himself a longtime scholar at the institution.
“I think a lot of them were surprised I knew her, that I
could get such a big name to show up,” he said with a laugh,
noting that they had been friends for many years.
Mankiller’s time at Dartmouth and Arizona were just two of
her many teaching adventures after her days of tribal
leadership. In addition to co-writing two books, “Mankiller:
A Chief and Her People” and “Every Day Is a Good Day:
Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women,” she would go
on mini-tours of campuses, staying for a few days to share
some passages or a speech, and to meet her followers.
Rebecca Tsosie, an Indian law professor at Arizona State
University, is one of many fans who fondly remember meeting
Mankiller after one of her public inspirational speeches.
“There are some people who have this rare quality, I guess
‘luminous’ is the best word. That is how I will always
remember her. She was powerful, but in a way that was so
kind, so compassionate.
“As amazing as she was, however, she also had a way of just
sitting down with you, like an old friend, chatting and
laughing about some small thing that struck her as amusing,”
“To me, she exemplified a Native woman’s leadership, both in
her manner and in her consistent and unfailing devotion to
her family, her people, the land, and the ways in which we
are connected to past and future generations. She knew these
things, practiced them, and had such a determination to make
sure that this would be protected into the future.”
Ron Karten, a writer with the Confederated Tribes of Grande
Ronde, was in the audience during one of Mankiller’s famous
public conversations, one she shared with former American
Indian Movement leader John Trudell at the University of
Oregon in 2005.
Like so many who saw her in such venues, Karten was
impressed that despite her health obstacles – she carried a
cane at that outing – she was “incredibly knowledgeable” and
even a little bit “feisty.”
Mankiller showed some of her spirited energy during that
talk with Trudell, lamenting of non-Indians, “After hundreds
of years of living together, they know so little about us.”
And she discussed feminism in contemporary times, saying
that “every woman figures out her own way to deal with
sexism.” In her case, she said she made her mark among the
men at the table by pulling her own seat up, and getting
down to business.
“I never thought about being a woman,” she remarked. “Nobody
told me I couldn’t do anything.”
She also said it was important not to let society define
what it is to be a woman.
“Girls and women have to have their own identity, not from
their boyfriends or husbands. Define it for yourself in your
own way,” she said.
Sara Gould, Ms. Foundation president, was quite familiar
with the tribal leader’s role in the women’s rights
movement, having worked with her for several years when
Mankiller served on the board of that organization.
“I turned to Wilma many times for ideas on bringing women
together, to help us move our shared endeavors forward.”
Gould said Mankiller’s contributions made Native American
women much more visible to people who would have had no
understanding of them otherwise.
“Most Americans haven’t visited a reservation; they really
have little clue about Native Americans. Wilma really was
able to speak about her experience, and get other women
thinking about it.”
Elouise Cobell, no stranger to being a celebrated Indian
leader, said she and many Native American women viewed
Mankiller as a role model and a pioneer.
“She showed that women could aspire to – and achieve – major
leadership positions in our Native communities,” the
Blackfeet citizen said.
Through Mankiller’s personal health struggles, including the
ramifications of a horrific car accident in 1979, two kidney
transplants, lymphoma and breast cancer, she also became an
advocate for Indian health issues.
Raining Deer Harjo, an author and motivational speaker,
quoted Mankiller in one of her writings focused on surviving
breast cancer. She said that it was the courage of people
like the former Cherokee chief who helped her make it
through her own ordeal.
“I still lean on her words.”
Larger than any of her commitments to various issues,
foundations, books and public appearances, Masten said
Mankiller’s greatest source of satisfaction was her family.
“She had a strong Cherokee husband, Charlie Soap, who
supported her, went with her everywhere, loved her so much –
it was a beautiful thing.
“And her daughters, Felicia and Gina, were always traveling
with her, or helping her in her endeavors. It was through
her family that Wilma found the strength to be the
courageous woman she was to so many people.”
Mankiller’s extended family, including good friend Gloria
Steinem, one of the top leaders of the contemporary women’s
movement, was also a substantial source of strength, Masten
Even after the Cherokee heroine knew she would succumb to
pancreatic cancer, she opened herself to the world, sharing
her personal e-mail address in her last statement to the
public, issued in early March.
“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,” Mankiller wrote
in her final message.
“On balance, I have been blessed with an extraordinarily
rich and wonderful life, filled with incredible experiences.
And I am grateful to have a support team composed of loving
family and friends.”
She continued her advocacy work, striving to get a Native
American studies department established at Northeastern
State University, at which she was a scholar.
Even in death, Mankiller managed to keep her strong spirit
alive, asking that any gifts in her honor be made as
donations to One Fire Development Corporation, a nonprofit
dedicated to advancing the economic development of Native
“She definitely wasn’t one to rest on her laurels,” Holm
said. “She kept on going until the last day. Now, the next
generations have to keep up her pace.”