Leader
of a Nation

Wilma Mankiller's service as the first female leader of the Cherokee Nation remains a symbol of women's progression and success against adversity, even years after her death.

When newly elected Cherokee Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller arrived at her first meeting with the Five Tribes, she was dismayed to see no seat had been set aside for her.

So she found a chair and carved out a spot for herself. Then she discovered she wasn’t on the agenda. Not even an acknowledgement of her presence.

As the meeting came to a close, she stood up, told the men who she was, what she was there for and what she planned to do. Two years later, she became president of that organization.

“Wilma Mankiller was flint rock covered in velvet,” said Jay Hannah, a close friend and former chairman of all Cherokee enterprises. “Her countenance was one of great softness, but her message, focus and passion for service to her people was strong and unwavering.”

“Wilma Mankiller was flint rock covered in velvet.” Jay Hannah, close friend

Wilma Mankiller came from humble beginnings in rural Oklahoma, eventually becoming the first woman to serve as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, the second-largest tribe in the United States. During her lifetime, she rallied with major American civil rights groups, mobilized Cherokee community members to build their own water pipeline, instituted millions in projects for Cherokee Nation and won the highest civilian honor in the U.S.

And in March 2010, when she was 64, her doctor gave her the diagnosis: Stage IV metastatic pancreatic cancer. Four weeks.

Charlie Soap Pickup

It was a brisk March day in northeastern Oklahoma. The day Wilma got the bad news. A crisp wind snapped against Charlie Soap’s cowboy boots, a birthday present from his wife.

Boot heels clacked against the pavement as he and Wilma left St. John’s hospital in Tulsa, Okla. He started the engine to Wilma’s black ’96 Impala.

At that point, “Montana,” Charlie’s 1976 maroon and white Chevy pick-up, was too unsafe to drive. The door often randomly flew open, but they kept it for the memories.

Montana was the truck Charlie picked her up in for their first date more than 30 years ago. The vehicle where Charlie learned she hated Coney Island hot dogs and Rambo movies.

As they left St. John’s, Charlie didn’t know where else to go except their home in Adair County. The sun’s rays filtered over their solemn faces as they drove. No one spoke.

Silently, they pulled into their long dirt driveway deep in the rolling forested hills of northeastern Oklahoma. A metallic cowboy boot hanging off their front gate greeted them. After a long pause, Charlie spoke first.

“What do you want to do?”

“Let’s drive.”

Maybe Wilma wanted to relive those free-spirited days when she and her two daughters, Gina and Felicia, used to hit the San Francisco highways in their red Mazda, grooving to the radio’s Motown beat.

“She had some moves man, she had some rhythm,” daughter Gina chuckled. “When I hear Motown music, it makes my soul happy because it brings back my most pleasurable memories of getting into the car and driving with mom.”

Or maybe Wilma was thinking back to her very first days in California. In October 1956, when she was 10, Wilma and her family moved from their Oklahoma home to Hunters Point, Calif., as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Relocation Program. She called the journey “my own little Trail of Tears.”

 

It was in California she gave birth to her two daughters, Gina and Felicia. And it was in the Bay where Wilma witnessed mistreatment of blacks, which led her to join forces with the Black Panthers and fight for racial justice.

Not long after, when members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied Alcatraz Island in 1969, she joined them too. Soon, she learned of the hardships facing Native Americans across the country. And it wasn’t long before she cultivated a strong desire to work on behalf of her tribe.

“Throughout the Alcatraz experience and afterward, I met so many people from other tribes who had a major and enduring effect on me. They changed how I perceived myself as a woman and as a Cherokee,” she wrote in her autobiography “Wilma Mankiller: A Chief and her People.”

Alcatraz, in particular, prompted her to move back to Cherokee territory, to Oklahoma, in 1976 with her two daughters.

Once there, she tried and failed several times to get a job within Cherokee Nation. She was either over-qualified or didn’t fit the job description. She finally marched into tribal headquarters one day and demanded they put her to work.

Wilma landed a low-level management position, working long hours and late nights. In 1981, she founded the Cherokee Nation Community.

In a just country, she would have been president.” Gloria Steinem, women's rights activist

Development Department and spearheaded the Bell Community Revitalization Project. Bell, Okla., a small community in eastern Oklahoma, was in dire straits—more than 200 families without running water. Wilma got people organized around the gadugi Cherokee tradition: working collectively for the common good. During the course of 14 months, Bell residents built the 16-mile water line to their community themselves.

Her hard work caught the attention of Ross Swimmer, principal chief of the Cherokees from 1975 to 1985.

“She was good at convincing people that the government was not going to be there to do it for you and the alternative was to do it yourself,” he said. “She convinced them they could do something for themselves.”

Charlie Soap and Wilma Mankiller

With Wilma at the helm of self-help programs, the Bell community saw improvements in social industries, decreased alcoholism and unemployment and increased school attendance, Swimmer said.

Swimmer was impressed. So in 1983, he chose Wilma as his running mate for what would be his final term.

Wilma worried her activism with the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement might cause her problems during the election. But she faced a different challenge.

“I was shocked,” Swimmer recalled. “I was looking for someone who could do the job, but I got quite a bit of pushback from the other side and some from my own supporters. They said, ‘She’s a woman. She can’t do this.’”“The reaction to my candidacy stunned me,” Wilma wrote in her autobiography. “But I would not be swayed.”

It was a tight race, but Wilma and Swimmer won. And when President Ronald Reagan nominated Swimmer to head up the BIA in 1985, Wilma suddenly assumed the role of principal chief. And when Swimmer’s term ended two years later, she decided to run for principal chief on her own accord.

“Some of my friends and advisers told me they believed the Cherokee people would accept me only as deputy, not as an elected principal chief,” Wilma said.

Come election time, Wilma raked in 45 percent of the vote despite kidney problems and frequent hospitalizations.

But a challenger, funeral home director and former Deputy Chief Perry Wheeler, earned 29 percent of votes.

The two went head to head in a runoff election — and Wilma won.

WILMA MANKILLER

She had become the first woman elected as principal chief of a major U.S. American Indian tribe.

But election didn’t mean acceptance. Wilma still had to find a seat for herself. She still faced flagrant discrimination and heckling.

“I received hate mail, including several death threats,” Wilma wrote in her autobiography. “Some people claimed that my running for office was an affront to God.”

But she persisted. In 1991, she ran for a second term as principal chief and won again.

“In a way, my elections were a step forward for women and a step into the Cherokee tradition of balance between men and women,” she wrote.

During her tenure as chief, the Cherokee Nation saw the tribes’ enrollment numbers more than double, vaulting it to the second largest in the country. She took an approach similar to the one she adopted for Bell years earlier, expanding tribal revenue and services such as housing and self-help programs and revitalizing the Cherokee judicial system. She also created an $8 million Job Corps training center and acquired more than $20 million in funding for construction projects, including freestanding health clinics.

Wilma had found a seat from which she could lead a nation.

Queen Elizabeth Invite

On the day of the diagnosis, Charlie and Wilma walked into the one-story, dark red house they shared. It looked the same then as it does today: walls covered in woolen Pendleton blankets, sacred eagle feathers, brightly painted Chinese scrolls and hand-carved African masks – gifts from a grateful global community over a lifetime. Two picture frames line the entrance. Inside one, bold black letters printed on creamy paper invite Wilma and Charlie to a garden party with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip of England in 1991.

The second frame showcases a certificate in elegant cursive: “Presidential Medal of Freedom” — the highest award a civilian can receive. President Bill Clinton presented it to Wilma in 1998.

“A few days after she received her award from the president, Wilma sat in a white dress at the steps of Echota Church in Adair County,” said Chad Smith, Cherokee principal chief from 1999 to 2011.

“Kids were clowning around her. And I thought, ‘How interesting. She received this award from the U.S. president three days ago and here she is on the front steps of a church. As common as anybody could ever expect.’”

That day in March, the day she got the news — it wasn’t Wilma’s first visit to the doctor. For years, she’d been in and out of hospitals with a variety of illnesses. In 1979, she was in a head-on collision that killed one of her best friends. A year later, she was diagnosed with a chronic neuromuscular disease called myasthenia gravis. Ten years later, after recurring kidney problems, she had to have a transplant. And she also survived breast cancer.

But she didn’t slow down, couldn’t say “no,” even when in pain. If someone asked for support, she’d help with a speech, give a talk willingly.

“It was hard to get sick around her,” Charlie said. “I’d get a headache or something like that and I’d say, ‘God, you’ve been through this and that. There ain’t nothing wrong with me! I’ll go to work.’”

Gina said her mother never turned away people for an interview, research or help with a story. Less than a year before her death, Wilma was named a Sequoyah Institute Fellow at Northeastern State University in her birthplace of Tahlequah, Okla., where she loved being around students, fostering creativity and finding solutions to problems.

We are better people and a stronger tribal nation because her example of Cherokee leadership, statesmanship, humility, grace, determination and decisiveness.” Chad Smith, former principal chief of Cherokee Nation

But finding a solution to cancer was another matter. After the diagnosis, Wilma was inundated with cards, e-mails and correspondence. One of those was a handwritten letter she kept next to her bed. It said “White House” in the corner and was signed by President Barack Obama.

Her close friend Gloria Steinem, a seminal force in the 1970s women’s liberation movement, stayed with her when the cancer got really bad.

“I owe my sense of old/new possibilities to my friend Wilma Mankiller, whose great heart brings hope to everyone around her,” Steinem wrote in Wilma’s book “Every Day is a Good Day.”

Toward the end, Jay Hannah visited Wilma in her last days. One afternoon, while they sat and chatted, she handed him a card from a widow whose husband was a good friend. His name was Harold “Jiggs” Phillips, and he was from Adair County. In the years since his death, his widow had sent many letters to Wilma.

In this particular letter, the widow remarked she was sorry to hear of Wilma’s illness. At the bottom she wrote: “P.S.: Wilma, if you see Jiggs, will you tell him I love him dearly?”

There was a pause. Jay looked at Wilma.

“Are you taking messages with you?” he asked.

“Yes, I think I am.”

“Well, could you tell my Cherokee grannies I’m trying to be the very best man I can be?”

Wilma gently placed her hand on Jay’s.

“Honey, they already know that.”

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