Wilma Mankiller Dies, Faced Many Health Challenges


Former chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller, died on Tuesday, April 6, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Mankiller, who faced many health challenges during her lifetime, touched the lives of many and revolutionized health care, business, and education for the Cherokee Nation.

“We are better people and a stronger tribal nation because of her example of Cherokee leadership, statesmanship, humility, grace, determination and decisiveness,” said Chad Smith, who succeeded her as chief of the Nation, in a CNN report. Mankiller, who was 64 at the time of her death, was elected the first female deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1983, and president of the tribal council. In 1987, she was elected as the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, but she chose not to seek re-election in 1995.

In 1998, President Clinton awarded Mankiller the Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honor. This was just one of many honors she received during her lifetime, including more than a dozen honorary degrees from prestigious universities and colleges, as well as entry into the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the Minority Business Hall of Fame, and the International Women’s Forum Hall of Fame, among other honors.

Mankiller was the founding director of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department, which helped provide self-help in water and housing projects in low-income Cherokee communities. She aided in the establishment of an Office of Indian Justice and was involved in the development of free-standing health clinics and expanded services for children and youth.


During her lifetime she presented more than 100 lectures on the challenges that face women and Native Americans. After leaving tribal office she accepted a teaching position at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and years later was the Wayne Morse Professor at the University of Oregan in 2005, where she co-taught a class on tribal law, life, and government.

Mankiller managed to achieve these and many other accomplishments despite a lifetime of health problems. In 1979, Mankiller was seriously injured in an automobile crash in which the other driver, her best friend Sherry Morris, died. Mankiller needed 17 operations to recover from her physical injuries. In 1990, she underwent a kidney transplant, receiving an organ from her brother Donald. Mankiller had apparently inherited the same kidney disease that had claimed the life of her father in 1971.

After recovering from the accident, Mankiller developed myasthenia gravis in 1980. This autoimmune muscle disease is characterized by weakness in the trunk, arms, and legs, chronic muscle fatigue, difficulty breathing, blurry or double vision, slurred speech, and difficulty swallowing and chewing. She was eventually able to overcome this challenge.

Less than one year after she retired from tribal office, Mankiller faced another health challenge: lymphoma. She underwent radiation and chemotherapy and won her battle with the disease. Breast cancer also entered the picture, and then in early March 2010, the Cherokee Nation announced that Mankiller had been diagnosed with stage IV metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Wilma Mankiller issued a statement regarding her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. In it she said that “I am mentally and spiritually prepared for this journey; a journey that all human beings will take at one time or another.” She went on to say that “It’s been my privilege to meet and be touched by thousands of people in my life.” Wilma Mankiller undoubtedly touched the lives of many thousands more, and her touch will be felt for generations to come.

Associated Press
CNN, April 6, 2010
Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America
Newson6.com, March 3, 2010
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