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The Queen of My Self

In honor of Aung San Suu Kyi and to celebrate her release, and with a nod to Election Day, this week’s theme is admirable women leaders of democracy.

Farewell to the Chief Queen

Wilma Mankiller the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation, died this year at the age of 64. She was one of the nation’s most visible American Indian leaders and one of the few women to lead a major tribe.
 
Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born near Rocky Mountain, Oklahoma in 1945, the sixth of eleven children. She first tasted the effects of federal policy toward Indians when as a child, her family ended up in a housing project in San Francisco thanks to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Indian Relocation Program. She spent the rest of her life attempting to improve the lot of her people. When she was 17, she married and had two daughters, Felicia and Gina.

In 1969, when she was 24, she got what she called “an enormous wake-up call” and took her first step into Indian activism by participating in the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island.
 
“We’ve had daunting problems in many critical areas, but I believe in the old Cherokee injunction to ‘be of a good mind.’ Today it’s called positive thinking.”
 
After getting divorced in 1975, Mankiller moved back to her family’s land in Oklahoma. By 1983 she was elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation, alongside Ross Swimmer, who was serving his third consecutive term as principal chief. In 1985, Chief Swimmer resigned to take the position as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This allowed Mankiller to become the first female principal chief. She was freely elected in 1987, and re-elected again in 1991 in a landslide victory, collecting 83% of the vote. In 1995, Mankiller chose not to run again for Chief largely due to health problems.
 
Chief Mankiller faced many obstacles during her terms in office. At the time she became chief, the Cherokee Nation was male-dominated. Such a structure contrasted with the traditional Cherokee culture and value system, which instead emphasized a balance between the two genders. Over the course of her three terms, Mankiller made great strides to bring back that balance and reinvigorate the Cherokee Nation through community-development projects where men and women work collectively for the common good.
 
“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.”
 
As the first female chief of the Cherokees, Mankiller was less of an activist and more of a pragmatist. She was criticized for focusing almost exclusively on social programs, instead of pushing for smoke shops and high-stakes gaming. The projects she implemented included establishing tribally owned businesses (such as horticultural operations and plants with government defense contracts), improving infrastructure (such as providing running water to the community of Bell, Oklahoma), and building a hydroelectric facility.
 
For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports.
– Sandra Poste
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During her tenure, she led the tribe in tripling its enrollment, doubling employment and building new health centers and children’s programs. She took Indian issues to the White House and met with three presidents. She earned a reputation for facing conflict head-on and she never ran away from a battle.

Despite her soft-spoken ferocity and her feminist stance, her name, Mankiller, did not reflect her social views – Mankiller is actually a Cherokee military title, which was adopted by one of her ancestors. But she did kid about it, 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 had also battled lymphoma, breast cancer and several other health problems, including stage 4 metastatic pancreatic cancer, which took her life.
 
Queen Mankiller declared that she was “mentally and spiritually prepared for this last journey” in a statement released by the tribe in the last month of her life. “I learned a long time ago that I can’t control the challenges the creator sends my way, but I can control the way I think about them and deal with them,” she said
 
“I want to be remembered as the person who helped us restore faith in ourselves.”
 
And so shall you be. Chief. Queen. Peaceful Warrior. Role Model.

Like water, be gentle and strong. Be gentle enough to follow the natural paths of the earth, and strong enough to rise up and reshape the world.
– Brenda Peterson

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The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to thequeenofmyself@aol.com.

CONSULT THE MIDLIFE MIDWIFE™
Queen Mama Donna offers upbeat, practical and ceremonial guidance for individual women and groups who want to enjoy the fruits of an enriching, influential, purposeful, passionate, and powerful maturity.
 

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