By Darla Shelden
Well known writer, lecturer, and feminist activist, Gloria Steinem was recently Oklahoma City University’s guest of honor during a tree planting ceremony held in remembrance of Wilma Pearl Mankiller.
Two trees were planted during the dedication ceremony. Mankiller’s daughters, Gina and Felicia Olaya, remembered their mother with a tree called the Cherokee Chief Dogwood and OCU planted a Cherry Laurel Bright-n-Tight, a member of the rose family, at the ceremony site.
Both trees were planted on campus just north of the Bishop W. Angie Smith Chapel.
Participating in the ceremonial dedication were Mankiller’s husband, Charlie Soap, her two daughters, Gina and Felicia Olaya and her grandson, Kellen Quinton.
Other speakers joining Ms. Steinem during the ceremony included Jay Hannah, Cherokee Nation Businesses Chairman; OCU President Robert Henry; and OCU Student Government Associates President, Emma Velez.
Musical tributes were made by singer and composer Jerod Tate and native flautist Me-Way-She Greenwood
Charlie Soap, recounted a humorous story about asking Mankiller on a date for the first time. He decided to take her to Tulsa and impressed her with a hot dog and a Rambo movie; she replied she didn’t like hot dogs and hated Rambo movies.
Their marriage of 24 years full of laughter and love certainly made up for that evening.
Wilma Mankiller, the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation, died last year. She served 12 years in elective office at the Cherokee Nation, the first two as Deputy Principal Chief followed by 10 years as Principal Chief. She retired from public office in 1995.
Mankiller was an outspoken advocate for American Indian and women’s rights. Among her many honors, she was named Ms. Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1987 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 1998. She was instrumental in tripling the enrollment of the Cherokee tribe and opening medical clinics and a career services center.
The two women first met when Mankiller became a board member for Steinem’s non-profit organization, Ms. Foundation for Women. They went on to become lifelong friends and political allies. So close in fact, that Steinem’s wedding was held at Mankiller’s home in 2000.
Mankiller was a supportive friend during the death of Steinem’s husband in 2003 and Steinem was with Mankiller for the final weeks of her life before she succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
OCU President Robert Henry and Steinem were among the honored dignitaries who spoke during Mankiller’s memorial service in April 2010.
Steinem is a best-selling author, co-founder of Ms. Magazine, and social and political activist who became nationally-recognized as a leader of the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Her current work, America As if Everyone Mattered, is being written at Hedgebrook, a 40-acre, rural retreat for women writers. It tells the story of her more than 30 years on the road as a feminist organizer.
Also present at the dedication was former Oklahoma City resident and Executive Director of Hedgebrook, Amy Wheeler. Wheeler is an established playwright whose life was changed by the gift of a Hedgebrook residency in 2002.
“I’ve had the good fortune of becoming friends with Gloria Steinem over the past five years as she’s come to Hedgebrook to work on her new book, begun here over a decade ago. As a woman born and raised in Oklahoma, I have long admired and been inspired by Wilma Mankiller and her fearless leadership,” said Wheeler.
“Last summer, knowing of Gloria’s deep friendship with Wilma, we decided to plant a Cherokee Chief Dogwood tree at Hedgebrook in Wilma’s honor behind Meadowhouse – the cottage Gloria stays in when she’s in residence with us – so that she could see it through the living room window,” said Wheeler.
“In a small ceremony, Gloria shared a letter she’d written to Wilma about how she’d always wanted to bring her to Hedgebrook, and the tree is now a reminder that her spirit is everywhere,” said Wheeler.
The planting of the Chief Cherokee Dogwood at Hedgebrook in memory of the Native American leader has inspired the recurrence of this event by friends and family across the country. Now, the same has happened at OCU.
It is the most natural and the deepest act of faith in the future to plant a tree.” said Steinem during the ceremony honoring her friend on the OCU campus. “We are saying through Wilma’s spirit that we will have faith.”