Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP)
The former chief of the Cherokee Nation believes the time will come when an American Indian serves as governor of Oklahoma.
“Someone just needs to step up,” former Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller said.
Mankiller, 61, was formally sworn in as chief of the country’s second-largest tribe on Dec. 15, 1985. Since she retired in 1995, Mankiller has been asked more than once to run for Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District seat, now held by Rep. Dan Boren, D-Muskogee. She always declines.
“It’s just not in my way of thinking. My vision, my life is in the tribe,” she said.
As Oklahoma’s centennial approaches, Mankiller said state-tribal relations are improving, although a certain tension is unavoidable because of questions of jurisdiction, tax authority and gaming.
“I’m hopeful in the future there will be more of a partnership,” she said.
Mankiller said it will be hard for her to celebrate the centennial because “that period of time was so tragic and so difficult for so many of the tribes.”
Instead, she sees the centennial as an opportunity to educate people about Indian contributions to the state, historically and now.
When Mankiller governed the Cherokee Nation, it had about 140,000 enrolled members, an annual budget of more than $75 million and about 1,200 employees. Bingo was the tribe’s only form of gaming.
Today, Principal Chief Chad Smith presides over a tribe of more than 232,000 members and a $377 million annual budget fueled largely by seven casinos.
“We came to gaming a little late,” Mankiller said. “We tend to be a little cautious, and we took our time deciding how we wanted to do it, whether we wanted to do it and where we wanted to do it.”
She thinks the move, while controversial, was the right one because it gave the tribe an unrestricted revenue stream.
“It allows them, for the first time, to set their own priorities,” she said.
While an honored guest at many Cherokee functions, Mankiller said she is “almost never” asked to advise the current administration, which she thinks is doing a good job.
“I don’t want to muck around in what they’re doing. Our management styles are probably different,” she said.
At the time she assumed office, she was the first female chief of a major tribe and one of only 83 female tribal leaders among 550 federally recognized tribes. Today there are about 130.
Economic growth fueled by gaming has allowed tribes to expand services, and many women have stepped in to head those programs, creating a pipeline into tribal leadership, she said.
“They get good experience as administrators. That’s what happened to me,” said Mankiller, who was the founding director of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department.
Mankiller remains active in Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations, an organization she and other female tribal leaders founded to help Native women succeed. The organization holds workshops and an annual conference.
“Our goal is to encourage younger women to step up to leadership,” she said.
Information from: The Oklahoman