Thursday, April 8, 2010

56:The Self-Empowered Woman: Wilma Mankiller

Dear Followers,

One of the things that I love about The Self-Empowered Woman project is that the members are so diverse. One day I'm learning about a woman in Zimbabwe, the next I'm researching a novelist in London, then I'm learning about a Hollywood director or a South American activist. Today, I'd like to honor an amazing woman who died this week in Oklahoma at the age of 64.

Wilma Mankiller was the first female cheif of the Cherokee nation. During the ten years (1985-1995) that she was their leader, the membership grew from 68,000 to 170,000. Today, the total tribal membership is 290,000; only the Navajo tribe is larger.

The sixth of eleven children, Mankiller's mother was of Dutch-Irish descent and her father was a full-blooded Cherokee. Until the age of eleven, she and her family lived on the "Mankiller Flats" property, which was part of the government's settlement for moving the Cherokee to Oklahoma in the 1830s. Their home had no electricity, no indoor plumbing and no telephone.

In 1956, due to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the family was relocated to San Francisco. During that time, Mankiller learned that she was different from the children in her new neighborhood. In her autobiography (Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, St. Martin's Press, 1993) she wrote about her school days and how the other kids laughed at her name and the way she spoke and dressed (5: Life is Not a Popularity Contest).

In 1977, she received her first job with the Cherokee nation, and began her life's work of getting as many native people as possible "...trained at the university level of Environmental Science and Health, and then to help integrate them back into their communities. This became her (7: Magnificent Obsession).

By the mid 1980s, she had been elected deputy chief, and when Chief Swimmer resigned to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington D.C., many critics were sure that "with a woman in charge" the Cherokee nation was doomed (13: More Than Meets the Eye). But she was so successful that she was re-elected twice and the tribe prospered.

Mankiller endured a long list of physical challenges (12: Hard Times) that include lymphoma, myasthenia gravis, kidney transplant and an auto accident that required 17 operations and years of physical therapy.

In 1998, President Clinton awarded Ms. Mankiller the Medal of Freedom (8: Turning No Into Yes), which is the nation's highest civilian honor.

Looking forward to your comments...

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