Years before she became the first woman elected chief of the Cherokee Nation and decades before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Wilma Mankiller was a powerful advocate for American Indian families in the Bay Area.

Mankiller died Tuesday at her home in Tahlequah, Okla., the city where she was born. She was 64.

The tribal leader grew up in a housing project in San Francisco's Hunters Point neighborhood and worked in Oakland in the 1970s. Her family moved to the Bay Area in the 1950s as part of a government relocation plan for American Indians.

As a young woman, Mankiller helped develop programs on both sides of the Bay for people struggling to adjust to life off the reservation. With few other American Indians in their schools and neighborhoods, relocated children and families often felt isolated and lost, said Janet King, who directs a program at Oakland's Native American Health Center for children who have experienced trauma.

"Native children were dropping out at the elementary school level," King said.

King said that Mankiller was instrumental in creating "another kind of community" for American Indians and that she created places for children to learn about their history in a way that wasn't taught in public schools.

"Wilma knew how difficult it was to go to school as a native person," King said.

In the Bay Area, Mankiller typically worked behind the scenes, laying the groundwork for social programs, drafting policy proposals and organizing people from different tribes around a common cause, her friends said. She didn't seek attention, they said, but she was a natural leader — a bright mind and a gifted public speaker who quickly earned the community's trust.

"When she spoke, people really listened," said her friend Marilyn St. Germaine, of Alameda.

As director of the Native American Youth Center on East 14th Street in Oakland, not far from where the Native American Health Center is now, Mankiller publicly criticized the Oakland school system.

"Oakland public school services are just inadequate for American Indian students," she told a Tribune reporter for an article published in 1977.

Mankiller worked with the school district to develop those programs, including a public child care center that St. Germaine said has since been dismantled. About 175 Oakland public school students identified themselves as American Indian in 2008, less than one-half of a percent of the school district's enrollment.

St. Germaine said her friend's experience in an urban housing project shaped her as a leader. "She understood not only Indians, I think, but the plight of minority people because she grew up in Hunters Point," St. Germaine said.

Mankiller's activism began in earnest in 1969, when she took part in a 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island, claiming it as Indian land. The goal was to build a cultural center on the island, which was no longer housing prisoners.

Her friend Jerry Roybal, of Sonoma, was there. He described the occupation as "the real genesis, the awakening" of the American Indian Movement, in which Mankiller and others would play a key role.

Roybal said it was during Mankiller's years in the Bay Area that she acquired a deep knowledge of constitutional, federal and administrative law that she would draw from as chief. She led the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma between 1985 and 1995, expanding health and social services for children and families. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.

"She was one of the few people I know that was a real Indian in the traditional sense: that you are a service to the community and you don't do it for yourself," Roybal said.

Health problems long had plagued Mankiller, who died of pancreatic cancer, according to The Associated Press.

"She's in a good place now," Roybal said. "Her suffering's over."

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.ibabuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.