TAHLEQUAH — The thunder of a Kiowa drum rolled across the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds, the only sound as a crowd of about 1,200 people gathered Saturday to a pay their last respects to the tribe’s former principal chief, Wilma Mankiller.
The 2½-hour memorial service featured songs, traditional tribal ceremonies and remembrances by those who knew Mankiller, punctuated by the reading of statements from public officials such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama and a host of others.
Mankiller died Tuesday at age 64 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. She was the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and a fierce advocate for American Indian and women’s rights.
She was elected the Cherokee Nation’s deputy chief in 1983 and served as principal chief from 1985 to 1995. Under her leadership, the tribe saw its enrollment triple, along with the opening of several new medical clinics and a jobs center.
The event was attended by dignitaries including Gov. Brad Henry, Lt. Gov. Jari Askins, U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, feminist icon Gloria Steinem — a friend of Mankiller’s who also spoke at the service — and tribal leaders from across the state and country.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith recalled a letter that he got from Mankiller a few weeks before her death, stating that she was emotionally prepared.
“A long time ago I learned that I cannot always control the challenges the Creator sends my way, but I can control the way I think about them and react to them,” Smith quoted from the letter.
Smith said Mankiller was a strong leader, yet humble and a “patriot of the Cherokee Nation who gave her all for her nation.” Smith and Deputy Chief Joe Grayson then presented Mankiller’s family with the tribe’s Medal of Patriotism in her honor, the first time a non-military member has been given the award.
Federal appeals court Justice Robert H. Henry, a friend of Mankiller’s, said the former principal chief refused to have limits placed on her.
“Wilma was indeed without limitations, young people gathered here today, because she refused to see them or acknowledge them,” Henry said.
Former principal chief Ross Swimmer recalled her service with him as deputy chief, and how he, a Republican, and she, a Democrat, worked together for the betterment of the tribe.
“I don’t recall any conversations about white man’s politics,” Swimmer said. “We both teamed up on Washington. She’s left a legacy for women in this country and women in tribal leadership. She will be remembered.”
Bob Friedman, a friend of Mankiller’s, said Mankiller was a pioneer for tribal self-help programs and a tireless advocate of justice who “fought to ensure that everybody could have access to the health care that saved her life so many times, and last week, on one of the darkest days of her life, upon hearing health care reform had passed, she cheered loudly.”
Mankiller’s daughter Gina Olaya and husband Charlie Soap recalled the more personal moments of her life.
She was a woman who loved to play poker, brought home every stray animal she found (including an emaciated pig she found wandering on a lonely country road), had an appreciation for Motown music, had a love of the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Lakers, and loved others, regardless of their differences.
Her daughter Felicia Olaya read a statement that Mankiller had written four days before her death, which she had asked to be read at her memorial service.
Mankiller asked that she be cremated and her ashes spread at the spring near her home at Mankiller Flats in Adair County.
“I know that many people around here believe in burial,” Mankiller’s letter explaining her wishes began. “But I would like them to bury something after today. I would like them to bury any unkindness or anger or hurtful things I may have done. Bury those with me.”
Mankiller’s statement said that she had a wonderful life and that she hoped people would be encouraged by it.
“When I was seven or eight and living here, no one would have ever guessed what the future would bring. I hope people will learn from that — about themselves and about others. Don’t turn away from people because of how they look or what they have because you never know what they’ll contribute to the world.”
After Felicia Olaya finished reading her mother’s words, she held up a single white feather, and tearfully said: “Rest in peace, mom … you will forever be in our hearts.”