Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected chief of the Cherokee Nation, passed away yesterday at the age of 64.
Mankiller served as principal chief from 1985 to 1995, and is credited with revitalizing the Cherokee community by prioritizing strong social programs that created housing, schools and children’s centers in Oklahoma. She built an $8 million job-training center, and the largest Cherokee health clinic in Stilwell, Oklahoma, that today is named after her. The Muskogee Phoenix reported that under her leadership, Cherokee membership more than doubled, from 55,000 people to more than 170,000. Employment rates also doubled and infant mortality rates declined, all during her tenure.
In 1990, Mankiller signed a historic self-governance agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs that brought federal fund allocations back under the control of the Cherokee Nation and five other tribes and away from the BIA’s power.
And she fought for the rights of Native American people even while overcoming a series of life-threatening illnesses, including lymphoma, a muscular disorder, near-kidney failure and breast cancer. She died of metastatic pancreatic cancer.