Wilma Mankiller service likely to draw thousands

OKLAHOMA CITY — Cherokee Nation officials expect thousands of people at the memorial service today for former tribal Chief Wilma Mankiller, one of the most visible American Indian leaders in recent years and among the few women to ever lead a major tribe.

The memorial for Mankiller, who died Tuesday at age 64 after a bout with pancreatic cancer, will be held outside at the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds in Tahlequah, about 70 miles east of Tulsa.

Volunteers helped set up about 3,000 chairs, and bleacher seating will be available during a service that will highlight Cherokee culture, tribal spokesman Mike Miller said Friday.

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 decade of 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 President Clinton in 1998. She met with other U.S. presidents and dignitaries, but was also known for working closely with everyday members of the tribe.

Her memorial is expected to draw mourners from across the same social lines including Gov. Brad Henry and U.S. Rep. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee.

"She was such a monumental leader in Indian Country and certainly within the Cherokee Nation because, ironically or perhaps appropriately, she was so humble," current Cherokee Chief Chad Smith said. "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."

"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," Smith said. "If I had one word to frame her, it would be patriot. A patriot is one who gives her all for her people."

Among others, Mankiller's husband, Charlie Soap, and daughters Gina Olaya and Felicia Olaya are scheduled to speak.