Mankiller, Opala among notable 2010 Oklahoma deaths

By Murray Evans
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP) January 2011

The impact made by Wilma Mankiller as one of the nation's most visible American Indian leaders was evident upon her death, as two current or former U.S. presidents publicly weighed in on the former Cherokee Nation chief's legacy.

In Indian circles, few names were as big as that of Mankiller, who died April 6 at age 64 after suffering from pancreatic cancer. She served from 1985 to 1995 as the Cherokees' first female chief, taking tribal issues to the White House and teaching “the lesson that our lives and future are for us to decide,” current Cherokee Chief Chad Smith said.

During her tenure, Mankiller helped triple the Tahlequah-based tribe's enrollment, doubled employment and focused on building new health centers and children's programs for the tribe.

Former President Bill Clinton presented Mankiller with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, in 1998 and noted upon her death how “she worked to create jobs, break down social and economic barriers, improve access to health care and address the roots of both rural and urban poverty” while leading the Cherokees “with dignity and grace.”

President Barack Obama said Mankiller “was recognized for her vision and commitment to a brighter future for all Americans.”