“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it, possibly without claiming it,
she stands up for all women,” declared Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Wilma Pearl Mankiller (1945-2010), her name means worrier, worked tirelessly to improve the Native American image and to fight the misuse of native heritage. She was the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation; her goals: to improve the lives of Native Americans. As a community care partner, she wanted to help Native Americans receive better education and health care, and, most importantly, she wanted them to preserve and practice their heritage and traditions.
Her father, Charley Mankiller was a full-blooded Cherokee; her mother’s ancestors, Dutch and Irish immigrants, settled in North Carolina in the 1800s. The family lived in Oklahoma where Wilma was born; she was the middle child of eleven children. The family relocated to the San Francisco Bay area as part of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 which assured assistance, but the housing was deplorable. With the advent of the Civil Rights movement, Mankiller became involved and joined a small group of “Red Power” activists on Alcatraz Island (the group occupied the island for nineteen months) focusing her work on fundraising to support those who opted to stay on the island, saying “Alcatraz articulated my own feelings about being an Indian.”
Bell, Oklahoma was a small predominately poor Indian community when they invited Mankiller to help them establish a self-help project in 1981. She asked them, “What single thing would change this community the most?” thinking they would choose schools, but they told her they wanted running water. Supplies were procured and the people of Bell volunteered to build the water system. Although there were some naysayers, Wilma believed in the people, and because of her strong belief, she brought the community back together. The twin concepts of hope and self-determination united. This was the first of several self-help projects inspired by Mankiller.
Mankiller was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in New York City in 1994, received the highest civilian honor, The Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1998 and two years later, her autobiography Mankiller: A Chief of Her People was published. Plagued with multiple health issues, she succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2010.
Life Lesson: “I was a pretty ordinary person given the opportunity to do extraordinary things in my life,” she explained. Care partners may also be ordinary people given the opportunity to do extraordinary things as we continue our joint journey, but care partners are far from ordinary! “I hope that when I leave it will just be said: I did what I could,” said Wilma Mankiller