Tributes from Reformed church leaders are pouring in for Wilma Mankiller, an American Indian rights advocate who died Tuesday at 64 after a brief illness. Mankiller, a member of the Cherokee Nation in the United States, was scheduled to be a keynote speaker this June at a global assembly of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC) in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
"We have lost a strong and passionate advocate of her people's rights. I pray that her family and people will find some comfort in knowing of our respect and admiration for her," says Richard van Houten, General Secretary of the Reformed Ecumenical Council.
Prior to being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Mankiller had agreed to make a keynote presentation at the Uniting General Council (UGC) which will launch the World Communion of Reformed Churches in a merger of WARC and REC to take on the campus of Calvin College. The Christian Reformed Church is helping to host the event.
"Chief Mankiller's dedication to the rights of Indigenous peoples would have brought an important challenge to all of our churches to act with justice on behalf of the First Peoples of our various countries," says Stephan Kendall in a statement issued from his office with the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
Rerformed Ecumenical Council President, Rev. Peter Borgdorff adds, "We hope her legacy will continue to inspire others to pursue the path of grace, compassion and justice for all."
Issues affecting American Indian and Canadian First Nations’ peoples are an important feature of the UGC agenda. Program highlights include the ceremonial invitation by local tribal leaders for delegates to meet in their land and a worship service led by American Indian Christians.
"We had looked forward to having Chief Mankiller inspire the Uniting General Council and will deeply miss her presence with us," says WARC President, Clifton Kirkpatrick. "However, her legacy will live on, and we commit ourselves to working for the kind of world where all can live with peace and justice that she believed in so strongly."
As a community development worker with her people in the western Oklahoma, Mankiller initiated successful programs for health, housing, education and poverty eradication. In 1987, she became the first woman elected as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in the western American state of Oklahoma. In 1994, Mankiller was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in the United States and in 1995 she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Clinton. It is the highest honor given to an American citizen.
Levi Rickett, a leader in the American Indian community in Grand Rapids, says in a statement: "Certainly the American Indian people have lost a true warrior. But I will say the nation—the United States of America—and the world have lost a true leader who understood the meaning of dedication and sacrifice to her people and the world at large."
"We in WARC have seen Wilma Mankiller’s impact for life, for justice and for her own community and far beyond," says WARC General Secretary, Setri Nyomi. "We thank God for her life and impact and will pray for her family and for the Cherokee nation."
Mankiller leaves two daughters, Felicia and Gina, and her husband, Charlie Soap as well as four grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.