TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – One of the most influential American Indian leaders in recent history, most knew former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller for strengthening her tribe and drawing the accolades of U.S. presidents. But it was her humble, tender nature – a refusal to squash a bug, an affinity for opera – that defined her life, friends said Saturday.
Mankiller, among the few women to ever lead a major tribe, was remembered during a memorial in Oklahoma that drew more than 1,200 mourners, including dignitaries from other tribes and governments, as a respected leader who earned the nation’s highest civilian honor.
But she was also a mother who turned her daughters on to Motown records, an avid poker player and dancer with an affinity for movie star Johnny Depp. A tender heart who brought home stray animals, including an emaciated pig she found along a county road.
A Boston Red Sox fan, she could recite the stats of any member on the team’s roster.
“She always saw you a little better than you were, so you became better,” friend and women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, who was with Mankiller in the final weeks of her life, said during the outdoor service at the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds, about 70 miles east of Tulsa.
Mankiller died Tuesday after a bout with pancreatic cancer. She was 64.
Mankiller led the Cherokee Nation, which now has about 290,000 members, from December 1985 until 1995, when she decided not to seek re-election.
Under her guidance, the tribe tripled its enrollment, doubled employment and built new health centers and children’s programs.
She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor in the country – from then-President Bill Clinton in 1998.
Yet she was always without pretension, whether with dignitaries in Washington or sitting on a porch at home in Oklahoma, friends said.
“Her strength was absolute humility,” said current Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith. “That humility made her approachable rather than aloof … and made her lead rather than follow.”