Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Wilma Mankiller, First Female Chief of Cherokee Nation, Dies at 64

I saw this story in The Wall Street Journal this morning.  This information is from The New York Times International Edition of April 6, 2010:

Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee Chief and First Woman to Lead Major Tribe, Is Dead at 64
Published: April 6, 2010

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 current tribal membership is 290,000, making it the second-largest tribe in the country after the Navajo.

. . . 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 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.

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. . . .

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