Remembering Melinda Micco, first Native woman tenured at Mills College

Her work focused on the intersection between American Indian and African American histories.

Melinda Micco. Credit: Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie

Melinda Micco, a UC Berkeley alumna and professor emerita of Mills College, whose primary work explored the intersection of Seminole Indians and African Freedmen in Oklahoma, died on Sunday, Dec. 5, surrounded by family, in Oakland. She was 73 years old.

Melinda Micco was born in Richmond, California, on Dec. 21, 1947, to Harry and Frankie Coker (née Wilson). She was the eldest of four daughters. From a young age she was curious, adventurous and wicked smart. Her mother recalled Melinda as a wild child until school began to engage her mind. She moved to San Mateo in middle school and graduated from Aragon High School, one of only two people of color, in 1966. She married, had two children, and only after getting divorced did she consider continuing her education. Despite being offered admission to numerous Ivy League institutions, she chose UC Berkeley for its proximity to family. She put herself through school as a single mother to two young children without financial support or a co-parent. Melinda returned to school at UC Berkeley as a single mother at the age of 39 and excelled academically. She earned a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctorate in Ethnic and Native American studies, and graduated with honors in less than seven years. She lived in North Berkeley on Cedar Street at Josephine for many years.

After graduation from Berkeley in the spring of 1993 she was hired at Mills College as All But Dissertation (ABD), which she had to complete in order to begin her tenure track position in the fall. She went into her bedroom “office” and worked long days from May until August. She completed her dissertation in just under three months at a time when the national average was 8.2 years. 

When she arrived at Mills there were only a handful of faculty of color and she was the only American Indian faculty member. In 1994, Melinda became Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department and the first Native American woman tenured since the school founding in 1852. At that time, Ethnic Studies had few faculty and the curriculum relied on courses from other programs. Melinda was instrumental in bringing Latinx and African Diaspora studies to Mills. 

Melinda’s early scholarship focused on the often overlooked intersection between American Indian and African American histories. She conducted numerous oral history interviews with Seminole leaders to uncover the history of the Black Seminoles and published an important work “Blood and Money”: The Case of Seminole Freedmen and Seminole Indians in Oklahoma based on these interviews. She later became interested in violence against women and women’s spiritual activism, and co-directed a film about the forced sterilization of Native American women titled Killing the 7th Generation: Reproductive Abuses Against Native Women. She also founded the Brave Hearted Women Conference and is a founding member of Idle No More, a group of grandmothers from the four directions who led environmental justice and spiritual activism movements and worked to raise awareness about the health impacts of the Richmond refinery corridor. Her most recent film project Every Step a Prayer, with co-producer Chihiro Winbush, documents four healing walks over the course of four years in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Melinda was a featured speaker at Oxford, the Smithsomian, Harvard, UC Berkeley, the De Young, and many other prestigious institutions. What is most noteworthy however was her ability to weather extreme hardship and remain bright and positive. She was a staunch advocate for and mentor of female scholars of color. She focused on inclusivity within the context of higher education and was one of the first educators to incorporate different learning styles into her pedagogy to accommodate and celebrate neurodiversity. 

During the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, Melinda spent time visiting a friend dying of the disease. When she realized many were dying alone without the love and acceptance of their families, she requested protective clothing and a mask to be with numerous patients and hold their hands as they died. Her allyship of the gay, trans, and two-spirit community was unwavering.

Melinda was a guiding light and mentor to many women of color over her storied career, but beyond her academic and social advocacy work, she was a friend, sister, daughter, mother, and grandmother. Melinda was loyal, fierce, witty, irreverent, compassionate, and more than anything else, loving and deeply loved by her close friends and family. There is no greater testament to a life well lived, than the love of others left behind. She is survived by her son, Sean; daughter, Megan; grandchildren, Finlay and Sophia; son-in-law, Jeffrey; her cousin, David, and his wife, Aileen.