Former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller, one of the nation's most visible American Indian leaders and one of few women to lead a major tribe, died yesterday after suffering from cancer and other health problems. She was 64. Mankiller, whose first taste of federal policy toward Indians came when her family ended up in a housing project after a government relocation project, took Indian issues to the White House and met with three presidents.
In 1969, 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. As the first female chief of the Cherokees, from 1985 to 1995, Mankiller led the tribe in tripling enrollment, doubling employment, and building new health centers and children's programs. "We feel overwhelmed and lost when we realize she has left us, but we should reflect on what legacy she leaves us," current Cherokee Chief Chad Smith said.