Symposium Dedicated in Honor of Wilma Mankiller

The 38th Annual Symposium on the American Indian at Northeastern State University was dedicated in honor of Wilma Mankiller, who passed away April 6 following a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer.

Themed “Oklahoma Fancy Dance” in recognition of a style of dance developed in Oklahoma in the 1920s, the symposium was held April 12-17 on NSU’s Tahlequah campus.

Mankiller was involved in planning this year’s symposium and would have been the keynote speaker at a panel discussion that she helped to create, “Indigenous Studies in the 21st Century” in the University Center Rozell Ballroom. A special video presentation payed tribute to Mankiller’s legacy prior to the panel discussion.

At the time of her death, Mankiller was active as the first NSU Sequoyah Fellow and was exploring initiatives for Northeastern State that would expand women’s leadership opportunities.  She was also deeply committed to helping NSU become a gathering place for indigenous peoples from around the globe and establish a global presence through indigenous studies.

Throughout her distinguished career, she developed a worldwide reputation as a spokesperson on Native American issues and as an advocate for women’s rights.

Phyllis Fife, director of the NSU Center for Tribal Studies and the event’s lead organizer, said Mankiller enjoyed her role as a Sequoyah Fellow because it offered opportunities to focus on her areas of special interest.

“Wilma was very glad to be part of this symposium and helping to plan the activities, especially the panel discussion that is tied so closely to her areas of interest,” Fife said. 

From her experiences working with and visiting indigenous communities around the globe, Mankiller had a vast knowledge of issues and circumstances that affect native peoples, Fife added.  “The successes she saw in working with communities were things she drew on from seeing indigenous leadership thrive within the cultural heart of those communities.”

Mankiller was the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees – including an honorary doctorate awarded by President Don Betz at NSU’s 2009 spring commencement — and was one of only a handful of American Indians to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Bill Clinton.  She was also awarded the NSU President’s Award for Community Service during the NSU Foundation’s 2008 Emerald Ball.

Betz noted Mankiller was an inspiration to others and called her “a celebration of self-reliance, interdependence, collaboration and service.”

“By her example, Wilma Mankiller encouraged us to persist in making a difference in each others’ lives, and invites us to ‘be the change,’” Betz said. “We are so blessed to have had the privilege to work alongside Wilma Mankiller as part of the NSU community. Her contributions as an advocate for Native American and indigenous peoples worldwide, and her commitment to the role of women in leadership, will continue to inspire individuals in all walks of life and have impact beyond our lifetimes.”

As the first woman to become principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and the first woman to lead a Native American tribe, Mankiller championed many causes – among them health care, social service, community revitalization, and economic self-sufficiency – that benefited Cherokee people and inspired others.

With decades of successes and worldwide recognition as a noted author, Mankiller was “remarkably humble about her accomplishments,” Betz said.

“For generations not yet born, the impact of Wilma Mankiller’s work and her influence around the globe will shape the world they inherit,” Betz said. “It is hard today for us to measure how she made a difference in this world, because she has touched so many lives in many ways.”

In delivering the commencement address last spring, Mankiller conveyed an enduring sense of optimism that was her driving force as she struggled with health issues much of her adult life.

“Optimistic, hopeful people view barriers and obstacles as problems to be solved and not as the reason to give up or turn back,” she said. “Positive people never, ever give up.”

Individuals who are the most fulfilled look for opportunities to find solutions and help others. “The happiest people I’ve ever met, regardless of their profession, their social standing, or their economic status, are people that are fully engaged in the world around them. The most fulfilled people are those who get up every morning and stand for something larger than themselves. They are people who care about others, people who will extend a helping hand to someone in need or will speak up about an injustice when they see it,” she said.

Mankiller addressed graduates during NSU’s centennial celebration, on the main campus in Tahlequah. NSU is located in the capital of the Cherokee Nation and traces its history to the founding of the Cherokee National Female Seminary in 1846.

The institution enrolls nearly 2,600 Native American students from more than 27 federally recognized tribes, and has the highest number of American Indian students of any four-year public institution. 
For more information about the 38th Annual Symposium on the American Indian, visit

Updated 04-19-2010

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