OKLAHOMA CITY — Former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller, one of the nation's most visible American Indian leaders and one of the few women to lead a major tribe, died Tuesday after suffering from cancer and other health problems. She was 64.
Mankiller, whose first taste of federal policy toward Indians came when her family ended up in a housing project after a government relocation project, took Indian issues to the White House and met with three presidents. She earned a reputation for facing conflict head-on.
As the first female chief of the Cherokees, from 1985 to 1995, Mankiller led the tribe in tripling its enrollment, doubling employment and building new health centers and children's programs.
"We feel overwhelmed and lost when we realize she has left us, but we should reflect on what legacy she leaves us," current Cherokee Chief Chad Smith said. "We are better people and a stronger tribal nation because of her example of Cherokee leadership, statesmanship, humility, grace, determination and decisiveness."
Mankiller met snide remarks about her surname — a Cherokee military title — with humor, often delivering a straight-faced, "Mankiller is actually a well-earned nickname."
Continual struggles with her health appeared not to deter her. A 1979 car accident nearly claimed her life and resulted in 17 operations. She developed the muscular disorder myasthenia gravis and had a kidney transplant in 1990.
Mankiller used some hospital stays to work on her autobiography with Michael Wallis. The book, "Mankiller: A Chief and Her People," was published in 1993. In it, she said she wanted to be remembered not just for being the tribe's first female chief but for emphasizing that Cherokee values can help solve contemporary problems.
"Friends describe me as someone who likes to dance along the edge of the roof," she wrote. "I try to encourage young women to be willing to take risks, to stand up for the things they believe in, and to step up and accept the challenge of serving in leadership roles."
Mankiller also had battled lymphoma, breast cancer and several other health problems. Last month, her husband, Charlie Soap, said she had stage 4 metastatic pancreatic cancer. After that, Mankiller said she was "mentally and spiritually prepared for this journey."