TAHLEQUAH, Okla. —One of the most influential American Indian leaders in recent history, most knew former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller for strengthening her tribe and drawing the accolades of U.S. presidents. But it was her humble, tender nature — a refusal to squash a bug, an affinity for opera — that defined her life, friends said Saturday.
Mankiller, among the few women to ever lead a major tribe, was remembered during a memorial that drew more than 1,200 mourners, including dignitaries from other tribes and governments, as a respected leader who earned the nation's highest civilian honor.
But also as a mother who turned her daughters onto Motown records, an avid poker player and dancer with an affinity for movie star Johnny Depp. A tender heart who brought home stray animals, including an emaciated pig she found along an Oklahoma county road.
Even a Boston Red Sox fan who could recite the stats of any member on the team's roster.
"She always saw you a little better than you were, so you became better," close friend and women's rights activist Gloria Steinem, who was with Mankiller in the final weeks of her life, said during the outdoor service at the Cherokee Nation Cultural Grounds, about 70 miles east of Tulsa.
Mankiller died Tuesday after about with pancreatic cancer at age 64.
Mankiller led the Cherokee Nation, which now has about 290,000 members, from December 1985 until 1995. Under her guidance, the tribe tripled its enrollment, doubled employment and built new health centers and established children's programs.
She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor in the country — from then-President Bill Clinton in 1998.
Yet she was always without pretension, whether with dignitaries in Washington or sitting on a porch at home in Oklahoma, friends said.
Mourners were told that Mankiller, even with her cancer diagnosis, never stopped living to the fullest, planning the next day's events and making peace with her final days.
Her "strength was absolute humility," said Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith.
"That humility made her approachable rather than aloof," he said. "And made her lead rather than follow."
Her daughter, Felicia Olaya, ended the service by reading a note her mother wrote before her death. Mankiller said she wanted people "to know what an incredible life I've had. I want them to be encouraged by it."