Remembering Wilma Mankiller (1945- 2010)
Feminists lost a great fighter on April 6, 2010. Wilma Mankiller, former Cherokee Nation Chief, passed away after struggling with many health problems during her lifetime, at the age of 64. Born the sixth of eleven children in rural Oklahoma, Mankiller went on to, among other things, become the first female Cherokee Nation Chief, from 1985 to 1995, and be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998. President Obama, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Chad Smith, and Governor Brad Henry of Oklahoma all commented on her life and her legacy.
Throughout Her passing has been covered by several blogs, but it merits as much mention as possible. Mankiller was someone who labored, with little glory at times, to better her own community, and in doing so set an example for the whole world. She lived an “un-political” life for many years, marrying and raising a family before the 1968 American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island moved her to action.
Throughout her lifetime her name became synonymous with optimism as she continued to speak, write, and lead even after a severe car accident in 1979 and struggles muscular dystrophy, kidney failure, and lymphoma. Gloria Steinem once said, “In a just country, [Wilma] would have been president.”
What can we learn from her life? How can we honor her dedication, optimism and strength with our work as feminists? Ms. Mankiller has always been a personal hero of mine because she worked steadily for years to better her own community with near-constant patience, grace, and dedication. After the Alcatraz occupation, she began taking night classes and working as a coordinator of Indian programs for Oakland public schools. Yes, she eventually went on to manage hundreds of millions of dollars. Yes, she became the face of the American Indian for many. But she began working an unglamorous but crucial job in her community, and always encouraged others to do the same. The New York Times will not publish an obituary for most of us, but all of us have the potential to contribute in some small way to our own community.
For more information, read her profile on Bitch blogs, her obituary in the New York Times, and a write up of her death in the Tulsa World. Ms. Mankiller co-authored her autobiography Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, and wrote and edited Every Day is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women.