Over the last few weeks, I have been immersed in the works of the late, great Wilma Mankiller, who in 1985 became the first woman to lead the Cherokee Nation as principal chief.
I had spent my law school years working on tribal law issues out in Oregon, and although I was no longer in that field when she took the oath of office, I remember the pride and elation I felt at the time.
Wilma died on April 6 of this year. I was sad when I read her obituary. Now that I have spent my days reading her words, I feel the loss profoundly.
I have been thinking (a lot) and writing (a little) about change - spiritual, personal. Life change. Wilma Mankiller is part of the path I find myself on at present. She has been pointing out landmarks as I walk.
In 1979, Wilma was in a head-collision that almost killed her. In her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, she wrote at length about being so near death, about coming to terms with dying, and about coming to terms with living. Then she wrote:
From that point on, I have always thought of myself as the woman who lived before and the woman who lives afterward.
Those words grabbed me. I have used similar words to talk about myself before and after my diagnosis of multiple myeloma. I did not come as near to death literally as Wilma Mankiller did. She was dying immediately; I was dying slowly. The impact was the same, however. My illness forced me to hold death close, touch death, take death into my life. It changed me forever.
To read someone else's acknowledgment of this is very powerful.
Wilma wrote that the near-fatal collision, an accident in which the other driver - a close friend of hers - died, and her long, painful recovery caused her to reevaluate her life. She wrote:
During the long healing process, I fell back on my Cherokee ways and adopted what our elders call "a Cherokee approach" to life. That mean one has to think positively, to take what is handed out and turn it into a better path.
Again, her words held me. I am not Cherokee and, despite stories of Native American blood in one branch of the family tree, I have never seen any indication of it beyond that family story. All the same, I appreciate and hold onto the spirit of what Wilma wrote.
It feels right because it is what I also concluded in the course of my long treatment and healing.
As principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller relied on her convictions that self-help and self-determination would strengthen the tribe and lift it out of poverty. Water, housing, education, and medical care were all top priorities of her administration and her lifework. It was the Cherokee approach Wilma wrote about: take what is handed out and turn it into a better path. Because of her passion and her work, she left the Cherokee people better and stronger. She went on to reach beyond the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation, advocating tolerance, acceptance, self-determination, justice, and unity in the community, this country, and the world. When she died, tributes from around the world flooded the family.
Over her lifetime, Wilma had repeated brushes with death: the car accident, a chronic kidney disorder that resulted in two separate kidney transplants, lymphoma, breast cancer. In late March, 2010, she and her family announced that she had stage IV pancreatic cancer. She said:
I want my family and friends to know that I am mentally and spiritually prepared for this journey; a journey that all human beings will take at one time or another. I learned a long time ago that I can't control the challenges the Creator sends my way but I can control the way I think about them and deal with them.
Wilma Mankiller died a month later.
I have watched portions of Wilma's memorial service online. There are repeated references to her journey into the lands beyond. Clearly she took the lessons she learned in 1979 to heart and brought them forward to the end of her life, sharing them with her family, her friends, and her people.
During the service, her husband Charlie Soap shared a conversation in which Wilma asked him, towards the end, whether he heard horses, saying that she heard them all the time outside the house. Charlie replied that surely the Indian warriors were gathering to escort her on her final journey to the other side of the mountain.
I cried when he related that story. I love the image of the warriors assembling to escort a great chief home.
When my journey comes, I hope I travel to the lands beyond with the same strength and grace that Wilma showed. I don't expect a warrior escort. But I would be thrilled to find Wilma on the other side of the mountain, smiling her trademark smile, wearing her Cherokee tear dress, and saying Tsilugi (welcome).