Trailblazing Native American Leader Wilma Mankiller Dead At 64
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, Walter Mosley's novels have been must-reads for more than a decade with readers at the local bookstore to the White House. Now he's back with a whodunit titled, "Known to Evil." And he joins us for our Wisdom Watch in just a few minutes.
But, first, some sad news. Wilma Mankiller, the former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation passed away yesterday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 64. Mankiller made history in 1985 when she became the Cherokee Nation's first female chief. She went on to become one of the country's most high-profile Native American leaders.
Joining us to talk more about her life and legacy is Rob Capriccioso. He's a reporter for Indian Country Today. Rob, welcome to the program. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. ROB CAPRICCIOSO (Reporter, Indian Country Today): Thanks for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: You know, she had a pretty unlikely journey into politics. She grew up very poor. She married young. How did she get involved in politics?
Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: Well, it was kind of I don't think it was her chosen path when she was a younger woman, but when she was in her 30s, she was asked by Ross Swimmer(ph), who was a leader in the Cherokee Nation to join him on his ticket as he was elected chief. She was his deputy principal chief, and they were elected together in 1983. And then in 1985, he was tapped by the Reagan administration to serve as head of the BIA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
And at that moment, when he took that job, she became the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. And it wasn't like a lot of people, you know, planned for her to be the leader, but when it happened, she became immensely popular. And then in 1987, she was elected with an overwhelming part of the vote and continued on as a leader for 10 years at the nation.
MARTIN: Why do you think she was so popular? I think she probably is one of the Native American leaders that most come to mind if people think about, you know, who are some of the visible faces of Indian country. Why do you think she was so popular? What do you think was her gift?
Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: Well, let me say, her last name didn't hurt. It's kind of a memorable thing that popped up for a lot of women, in the women's rights movement, really liked her. They resounded with her. But then her own voice was so strong, passionate, but she wasn't a loud person. A lot of people are talking, remembering her, have told me, you know, she quietly got things done.
She was a calm, optimistic person who you saw her vision laid out. And it was hard to disagree with her. You might have a good idea, but she could always make it better. So, I think that her personal way was really a remarkable thing.
MARTIN: You know, she did not mince words. She might've been soft-spoken, but she did not mince words. For example, she stopped by our studios back in 2008 to reflect on Columbus Day, and she talked about the stereotypes Native American people still face. Here she is.
Ms. WILMA MANKILLER (Former Principle Chief, Cherokee Nation): I think that in virtually every sector of society, native people, whether they're in tribal government or whether they're in the private sector or an artist, they encounter people every day who have such enormously stupid, ridiculous stereotypes about native people and have so little accurate information about either the history of native people or their contemporary lives.
MARTIN: Do you think that she made any headway with countering those kinds of images?
Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: For sure. She was recognized in her tribal nation, of course, but the mainstream really paid attention to Wilma Mankiller. When she did things, it was covered in The Washington Post. The Associated Press picked it up. She went on to teach at various mainstream institutions. After she left office she went to Dartmouth and taught a class there. And then she's gone to the University of Arizona, Oregon State University - all around the country. She appeared on Oprah promoting one of her books.
And she just connected with people beyond the Native American community and would say things like she said on your program previously, that I think the way she said it allowed more people than just Native Americans to kind of think about what she was saying and maybe even take action on it.
MARTIN: Now, she's been struggling with health issues for a while. I'm just -one is never prepared, really, for the loss of someone whom, you know, one loves and values, but what do you think her legacy will be, first of all? And how is she being remembered today?
Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: Yeah. First and foremost, I think her tribe will remember her as a woman who revitalized that nation. She opened the enrollment role of the tribal rolls when she was chief and helped expand the tribe to become the second largest one in the nation. She oversaw an economy there, several million dollars, and she really started a lot of initiatives on health, education and economic development. So I think her people in Oklahoma really will thank her for those firsthand things.
I think on a greater scale, she will be remembered as a person who was a pioneer as a female leader in Native American country who was a political thinker, who could address various problems and help the broader community try to understand something more about themselves maybe.
MARTIN: How will she be - how will her life be celebrated in the next couple of days?
Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: Well, it's already starting big time. People, you know, there've been messages on Facebook, countless - I'm counting hundreds of messages from tribal citizens. The president - President Obama yesterday, issued a statement praising her life and, you know, the president doesnt do that for every tribal leader who passes on. So it's a huge momentum. On Saturday, there's going to be a service for her near Tahlequah, where she was born in Oklahoma. And just, I think hundreds of tribal citizens are planning to make that journey to give their respects. And I think you'll see a lot of non-Native Americans there, like Gloria Steinem who's, you know, a top lady in the women's rights movement.
MARTIN: And one of her closest friends.
Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: Yeah. One of her best friends. Right.
MARTIN: Okay. Rob Capriccioso is a reporter for Indian Country Today. He's a frequent guest on this program and he was kind enough to join us from his home office in the Washington, D.C. area.
Rob, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: Thank you, Michel.
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