Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee Chief and First Woman to Lead Major Tribe, Is Dead at 64
April 6, 2010
By SAM HOWE VERHOVEK
Wilma Mankiller, who as the first woman to be elected chief of a major American Indian tribe revitalized the Cherokee Nation’s tribal government and improved its education, health and housing, died Tuesday at her home near Tahlequah, Okla. She was 64. The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Mike Miller, a tribal spokesman. Ms. Mankiller was the Cherokee chief from 1985 to 1995, and during her tenure the nation’s membership more than doubled, to 170,000 from about 68,000.
While many Cherokees live in a 14-county area around the tribal capital of Tahlequah, in eastern Oklahoma, its members are spread throughout the 50 states. The current tribal membership is 290,000, making it the second-largest tribe in the country after the Navajo. Ms. Mankiller was admired for her tenacity, having fought off two serious diseases, lymphoma and a neuromuscular disorder called myasthenia gravis; recovered from kidney failure that would have killed her had not an older brother given her one of his kidneys; and survived a head-on automobile collision in 1979 that forced her to endure 17 operations and years of physical therapy.
“We are better people and a stronger tribal nation because of her example of Cherokee leadership, statesmanship, humility, grace, determination and decisiveness,” Chad Smith, the Cherokees’ principal chief, said in a statement on the tribe’s Web site. “When we become disheartened, we will be inspired by remembering how Wilma proceeded undaunted through so many trials and tribulations.” Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born on Nov. 18, 1945, in Tahlequah. She was the sixth of 11 children reared by Charley Mankiller, a full-blooded Cherokee, and the former Clara Irene Sitton, who is of Dutch-Irish descent. (The Cherokees accept anyone as a member who can link any part of his or her ancestry to a member of the original tribe.)
She spent her early childhood on a 160-acre tract known as Mankiller Flats, given to her grandfather as part of a settlement the federal government made for forcing the Cherokee to move to Oklahoma from their tribal lands in the Carolinas and Georgia in the 1830s. The name Mankiller comes from a tribal military rank.
Though Ms. Mankiller later recalled that she had never really felt poor growing up, the family’s home had no electricity, indoor plumbing or telephones.
In 1956, the family moved to San Francisco as part of a relocation policy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Its aim was to move Indians off federally subsidized reservations with the promise of jobs in America’s big cities. Ms. Mankiller’s father became a warehouse worker and union organizer.
In an interview with The New York Times in 1993, Ms. Mankiller described the move as “my own little Trail of Tears,” a reference to the forced removal of Cherokees from the Southeast by federal troops during the winter of 1838-39.
In 1963, she married Hugo Olaya, an Ecuadorean businessman, and later became the mother of two daughters, Gina and Felicia. Her life changed, she said, when a group of young Indian demonstrators took over Alcatraz to call attention to the government’s treatment of Indians. They claimed the island “in the name of Indians of all tribes,” and during their 19-month occupation Ms. Mankiller visited them frequently and raised money for their cause.
She began taking night courses at Skyline College and San Francisco State University while working as a coordinator of Indian programs for the Oakland public schools. After her marriage ended in divorce, she returned with her daughters to live on her grandfather’s land in Oklahoma in 1977.
Soon she began volunteering in tribal affairs and leading campaigns for new health and school programs, like Head Start. She landed a job as economic stimulus coordinator for the Cherokee Nation, emphasizing community self-help. She also earned a bachelor’s degree in the social sciences from Flaming Rainbow University in Stilwell and took graduate courses in community planning at the University of Arkansas. In 1981, she founded the community development department of the Cherokee Nation and, as its director, helped develop rural water systems and rehabilitate housing. Her successes led the tribe’s principal chief, Ross Swimmer, to select her as his running mate in his re-election campaign in 1983. Their victory made her the first woman to become deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation.
When Mr. Swimmer resigned two years later to become assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, she succeeded him as principal chief. She won office in her own right in 1987 and in 1991 was re-elected with 83 percent of the vote.
As the tribe’s leader, she was both the principal guardian of centuries of Cherokee tradition and customs, including legal codes, and chief executive of a tribe with a budget that reached $150 million a year by the end of her tenure. The money included income from several factories, gambling operations, a motel, gift shops, a ranch, a lumber company and other businesses as well as the federal government. One of her priorities was to plow much of this income back into new or expanded health care and job-training programs as well as Head Start and the local high school.
Even after she left office in 1995 because of her health problems, Ms. Mankiller remained a force in tribal affairs, frequently sought out for counsel and helping to mediate a bitter factional fight between her successor and other tribal leaders that had threatened to become a constitutional crisis in the Cherokee Nation. She also was a guest professor at Dartmouth College.
In addition to her mother, she is survived by her husband, Charlie Soap; her daughters, Gina Olaya and Felicia Olaya, both of Tahlequah; several brothers and sisters, and four grandchildren.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Ms. Mankiller the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Her life story was chronicled in “Mankiller: A Chief and Her People” (St. Martin’s Press, 1993), which she wrote with Michael Wallis. She was also the author and editor of “Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women” (Fulcrum Publishing, 2004).
William Grimes contributed reporting.