Former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller, one of the few women to ever lead a major tribe, matched strength with a humbleness that made her approachable, the nation's current chief said Saturday.
Chief Chad Smith spoke at a memorial service for Mankiller that drew hundreds of tribe members and 170 tribal, state and federal leaders. Mankiller, one of the most visible American Indian leaders in recent years, died Tuesday at age 64 after a bout with pancreatic cancer.
"Wilma Mankiller was a patriot for the Cherokee Nation," Smith said. "Her strength was absolute humility. That humility made her approachable rather than aloof ... and made her lead rather than follow."
With her death, Smith said, "a dark cloud hangs above this nation."
The road to the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds about 70 miles east of Tulsa was clogged with cars early Saturday. Volunteers had set up bleachers and 1,500 chairs, but many mourners expected those to fill quickly and brought their own chairs to sit on the lawn.
Mankiller led the Cherokee Nation, which now has about 290,000 members, from December 1985 until 1995, when she decided not to run for re-election. Under her guidance, the tribe tripled its enrollment, doubled employment and built new health centers and children's programs.
She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor in the U.S. — from then-President Bill Clinton in 1998. She met with other U.S. presidents and dignitaries, but also was known for working closely with everyday members of the tribe.
Gov. Brad Henry and U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee, were among those expected at the memorial service.
"She was such a monumental leader in Indian Country and certainly within the Cherokee Nation because, ironically or perhaps appropriately, she was so humble," Smith said Friday. "I remember the iconic image of her in a white dress, like something she had just worn to church, on the front porch playing with her nephews and nieces. Just three days earlier, she had received the Presidential Medal of Freedom."
Smith remembers Mankiller almost as an "aunt," saying she was approachable as she led the tribe and incredibly wise.
"She understood that great leadership begins with the women — that's our long, cultural tradition. We must remember that the greatest gift she gave us was understanding that the future is ours, we get to choose it," he said. "If I had one word to frame her, it would be patriot. A patriot is one who gives her all for her people."
Others scheduled to speak during Saturday's service were Robert Henry, the chief judge of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; former Cherokee Chief Ross Swimmer, who preceded Mankiller; and women's rights advocate Gloria Steinem, a close friend of Mankiller.
Mankiller's husband, Charlie Soap, and daughters Gina Olaya and Felicia Olaya also are scheduled to speak.
Associated Press Writer Murray Evans in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.
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