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Long Live Wilma Mankiller

Wilma MankillerWilma Mankiller died of pancreatic cancer today at age 64. She is the first woman to lead the Cherokee Nation as its principal chief and instantly became an icon of women’s history. I interviewed her for Hard Won Wisdom and was so moved by her insight and kindness. She was one strong woman, and I want to share some of her hard won wisdom with you.

On how she was raised: “Nobody in my family ever told us that there were things we couldn’t do because we were female, or things we couldn’t do because we were poor, or things we couldn’t do because we were Native American. When I hear such admonitions from other parents, it makes me grateful for how I was raised. We didn’t feel there were limits on what we could do.”

On attitude: “The single most important lesson I learned by watching people in my community was that it is important to have a good attitude and keep your mind free of negative thoughts. That’s what I observed. I saw people facing the most daunting sense of personal or financial problems, yet they always found something positive in their situation. That had a profound impact on the way I looked at the world. And, it impacted the way I look at other people. They looked at the positive, rather than the negative. That’s important. When you meet people, you can focus on the positive attributes rather than the negative ones. It’s your choice.”

On her health obstacles: Throughout her life, she faced unbelievable adversity, surviving a terrible car accident that forced her to undergo dozens of operations, a neuromuscular disease and a kidney transplant. Of her adversities, she said, “The biggest challenge in my life has been to try to continue with my life and my work while dealing with an unbelievable array of health issues. I’ve dealt with that the same way I dealt with the opposition I had because I was a woman. It’s a problem, I acknowledge it and I try to deal with it the best way I know how, and then move on. Just like I don’t let my energy be siphoned off into questions of whether women should be in leadership, I won’t let my energy be siphoned off by a question of health. I can control my mind when I don’t control my body. I can do what I can to keep myself well and continue on. It’s really a choice. You can dwell on hard or bad things if you want. You don’t have to.”

On her triumph as a woman running for chief: “We live in a relatively conservative area in eastern Oklahoma and I expected my politics to be the issue. I’d been involved in many things that would be considered liberal or even radical. I thought those would be the issue.They weren’t.

“The issue was my being a woman, and I wouldn’t have it.

“I simply told myself that it was a foolish issue, and I wouldn’t argue with a fool. I ignored it and focused on the real issues.When it would come up and someone would say,‘You’re a woman, how will that affect your leadership,’ I said ‘Thanks for asking, now lets talk about health care.’“I did have my tires slashed.And one time when I was marching in a parade, a fellow folded his hand into the shape of a gun and did a pretend shooting of me as I walked on the parade route.That somehow bothered me more than anything. There were other things, like people burning down my signs on the billboards, but it was that man that I remember most. I could have dwelled on the hateful things people were saying to me, but I’d have lost the election.”

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