The late Wilma Mankiller will be remembered as being many things to many people: civil rights activist, tribal leader, author, mother, wife and friend.
On Thursday, students and campus organizations at Northeastern State University paid tribute to the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation as part of the university’s Be the Change Week. Since Monday, NSU has held events celebrating leadership.
The event celebrated American Indian tradition, including a drum circle, dancers, singers, speakers and a hog fry, along with video clips of Mankiller’s “Attributes of Leadership.”
“Being optimistic and hopeful can make a profound difference in how life turns out,” said Mankiller in the video. “Positive emotions like compassion, love, awe and wonderment ... make us much more vulnerable, but make our lives infinitely more rewarding.”
Mankiller stressed in order to maintain trust among the citizens of a government, transparency is key.
“The most important attribute of leadership is being positive,” she said. “Our job, as women, is to bring along the next generation. To do that, you have to have faith, optimism and hope. Women bring a more optimistic view [to government], and balance is important in Cherokee traditional life.”
Mankiller’s daughters, Felicia and Gina Olaya, both attended the event, and Gina related stories about key points in her mother’s life.
“For students who may be doing research, it’s very important to understand that Wilma Mankiller had three very defining parts to her life. She began as an activist in Northern California, when Felicia and I were growing up. She wasn’t always a leader. She learned first. I want to emphasize there were three chapters with defining lines when her life changed.”
Gina spoke about Wilma’s passion for civil rights, and remembered running up and down the highways of Northern California, “like hippies in a station wagon.”
“When we moved to Oklahoma, that was a different [chapter],” said Gina. “That included her accident in 1979, the Bell water project and becoming principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. The third chapter, after she left [tribal administration], she really wanted to be known as an author.”
Gina said to sum up her mother’s philosophy, she merely needed to remember a quote on a plaque that hung in her mother’s kitchen: “The meaning of life is to live in balance and harmony with every living thing ... We must understand our own insignificance in the totality of things.”
Pam Iron, former chief of staff for Mankiller, said she didn’t want to share memories of specific events, but rather the late chief’s way of “being,” and how she interacted with the world.
“If I had to choose words, or phrases, they would be thoughtful, forward-thinking, collaborative, debate, governance and relationships,” said Iron. “She was thoughtful in her use of words, and used words and phrases to make an impact. Expressions became her reality.”
Iron said Mankiller had a unique way of seeing goals, including the problems reaching them, and worked problems from the end to the beginning.
“She took [the desired] end result and backed into situations, which gave her a different way of seeing things,” said Iron. “She also believed in debate without anger. As uncomfortable as a situation was, this also gave her a different way of looking at things.”
Mankiller’s collaborative efforts with people in tribal communities, elders, and leaders of other tribes brought about phrases now commonly used among tribal governments.
“It was through her working with tribal leaders that the true practice of sovereignty came about,” said Iron. “Phrases like ‘government-to-government relations,’ and ‘self-governance’ took on real meaning as a way for tribes to work with the federal government. Before, they were just terms used in lawsuits.”
Iron said the way Mankiller held relationships was one of the distinguishing marks of her life.
“She would interact with people at speaking events, making notes on napkins,” said Iron. “This was a tool she used to collect herself before speaking. She would write things like ‘be of good mind,’ and ‘every day is a good day.’ I think what speaks most about her relationships is, I was [driving with my grandson] this morning from Sequoyah, and we began talking about Wilma, and he said, ‘She knew her people. She knew the needs of her people.’”
Charlie Soap, Mankiller’s husband since 1986, spearheaded the Bell water project, which is the basis for the film “The Cherokee Word for Water.” He spoke fondly of his late wife and the many community projects they completed together.
“Wilma was a great lady: fun, funny and pleasant to be around,” said Soap. “She was also a hard worker. We worked on the Bell water project when the girls were little, and they learned really quick if we were going to Bell, they’d end up with shovels and picks in their hands.”
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