NSU mourns the passing of Wilma Mankiller
Wilma Mankiller receives an honorary doctorate from Northeastern State University President Don Betz in May 2009.
Highly successful people share the ability to remain optimistic in the face of lifes greatest challenges, Wilma Mankiller told Northeastern State University graduates during the institutions centennial commencement ceremonies May 16, 2009.
TAHLEQUAH -- Northeastern State University mourns the passing today of Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and NSU’s first Sequoyah Fellow. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early March.
A memorial service has been scheduled for Saturday at 11 a.m. at the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds in Tahlequah.
Dr. Don Betz, NSU president, described Mankiller as a personal friend and a mentor to many, and one who brought joy to the lives of others.
“We are so blessed to have had the privilege to work alongside Wilma Mankiller as part of the NSU community. Her contributions as an advocate for Native American and indigenous peoples worldwide, and her commitment to the role of women in leadership, will continue to inspire individuals in all walks of life and have impact beyond our lifetimes,” Betz said.
Mankiller, whose association with NSU extends to the early 1980s, was named the university’s first Sequoyah Fellow last fall. She was committed to helping NSU become a gathering place for indigenous peoples from around the world and expressed a desire to see the university establish a global presence through indigenous studies.
The recipient of numerous honors and honorary degrees, she was one of only a handful of American Indians to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Bill Clinton. Mankiller was also awarded the NSU President’s Award for Community Service during the NSU Foundation’s 2008 Emerald Ball.
At Northeastern’s 2009 spring commencement ceremony, Betz presented Mankiller with an NSU honorary doctorate and called her “a celebration of self-reliance, interdependence, collaboration, and service.”
“Wilma Mankiller is a woman of extraordinary accomplishments,” he told graduates. “She reflects in all that she does a belief that we are truly here to make a difference.”
In delivering the commencement address, Mankiller conveyed an enduring sense of optimism that was her driving force as she struggled with health issues much of her adult life.
“Optimistic, hopeful people view barriers and obstacles as problems to be solved and not as the reason to give up or turn back,” she said. “Positive people never, ever give up.”
Individuals who are the most fulfilled look for opportunities to find solutions and help others. “The happiest people I’ve ever met, regardless of their profession, their social standing, or their economic status, are people that are fully engaged in the world around them. The most fulfilled people are those who get up every morning and stand for something larger than themselves. They are people who care about others, people who will extend a helping hand to someone in need or will speak up about an injustice when they see it,” Wilma said.
Mankiller’s commitment to leadership and service earned her a place in American history before the age of 40, when she was appointed first female chief of a Native American tribe. Her legacy extends beyond governance to a litany of projects she has championed through the years. Awareness of health care and creation of social services, along with community revitalization and economic self-sufficiency, have characterized her work for more than three decades.
Betz, whose friendship with Mankiller began in the early 1980s, has long attributed to her “a clear sense of why we’re here.”
“Wilma Mankiller understood incredibly well, and was pragmatic in conveying to others, that we must be our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper in the context of self help and reciprocity. She modeled the way for leaders both within the Cherokee Nation and around the globe.”
As a former principal chief, Mankiller has been a world renown spokesperson on Native American issues and an advocate for women’s rights.
“Prior to my election,” she has been quoted as saying, “young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up and become chief.”
Mankiller became the first female elected deputy chief and principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in the 1980s. A native of Adair County, she moved with her family at the age of 11 to California, under the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Indian Relocation Program. In 1977, she returned to Oklahoma and took a job as a tribal planner and program developer. Her ambition to be of service to Cherokee people was realized when Ross Swimmer, then Cherokee Nation principal chief, called upon her and husband Charlie Soap to revitalize traditional Cherokee communities.
Success garnered Mankiller national attention as an expert on community development. In 1983, Swimmer convinced her to run as deputy chief in what would become his successful bid for a third term as principal chief. When he resigned two years later to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Mankiller succeeded him as principal chief, and was re-elected in 1987 and 1991.
As a tribal leader she emphasized gender equality, economic self-sufficiency, and was an advocate for education, spearheading the revitalization of Sequoyah High School. The Wilma P. Mankiller Health Center in her native Stilwell is a tribute to her commitment to health care issues.
“We live in a world in which we are all interdependent and bear some responsibility for one another,” Mankiller said in December 2008. “While the issues we care about may differ, we all can find some worthwhile community effort to become involved with.”
With decades of successes, a multitude of national and international honors, and worldwide recognition as a noted author, Mankiller was “remarkably humble about her accomplishments,” Betz said.
“For generations not yet born, the impact of Wilma Mankiller’s work and her influence around the globe will shape the world they inherit,” Betz said. “It is hard today for us to measure how she made a difference in this world, because she has touched so many lives in many ways.”
Published: 4/7/2010 8:50:21 AM