The daughter of a full-blood Cherokee father and a Dutch-Irish mother, Wilma Mankiller became the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She was the first woman to hold that title.
Her paternal Cherokee ancestors were participants in the 1838-1839 forceful and deadly removal known as the Trail of Tears. In her youth, Mankiller and her family were a part of the federal relocation program aimed at “urbanizing” rural Indians. They relocated to a low-income housing project in San Francisco. Mankiller married and had a family as well as studied sociology at San Francisco State University. In November 1969, students associated with the Red Power Movement famously took over Alcatraz Island and claimed the deserted federal prison land as American Indian land. This event influenced Mankiller into changing the direction of her life. She later wrote, “Every day that passed seemed to give me more self-respect and sense of pride.”
After doing volunteer work among American Indians around San Francisco in the 1970s, Mankiller moved back to Oklahoma and continued to work in communities to further develop the 200,000-members of the Cherokee Nation. After a life-altering car crash in 1979, Mankiller became a more vocal advocate on issues affecting the tribe.
Her National Woman’s Hall of Fame biography describes her rise to the Principal Chef position and the impact she had on social and economic issues.
In 1983 she ran for deputy chief of the Nation, and in 1985 Mankiller became Principal Chief. Mankiller brought about important strides for the Cherokees, including improved health care, education, utilities management and tribal government. Future plans call for attracting higher-paying industry to the area, improving adult literacy, supporting women returning to school and more. Mankiller also lived in the larger world, active in civil rights matters, lobbying the federal government and supporting women’s activities and issues.
In 1998, President Clinton awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mankiller for her social and economic work with Cherokee Nation.
She battled lymphoma in 1995 and breast cancer in 1999 along with two kidney transplants in 1990 and 1998, Mankiller succumbed to pancreatic cancer on April 6, 2010. At the news of Mankiller’s passing, President Obama released the following statement:
I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Wilma Mankiller today. As the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, she transformed the Nation-to-Nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the Federal Government, and served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she was recognized for her vision and commitment to a brighter future for all Americans. Her legacy will continue to encourage and motivate all who carry on her work. Michelle and I offer our condolences to Wilma’s family, especially her husband Charlie and two daughters, Gina and Felicia, as well as the Cherokee Nation and all those who knew her and were touched by her good works.
Lisa, Laurie, “Wilma Mankiller” in Gretchen Bataille, ed. Native American Women. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993, 161.
Nelson, Andrew, “Wilma Mankiller,” Salon, November 20, 2001, found online here.
President Obama’s statement found at the White House website.
Photo and additional information – “Wilma Mankiller,” National Women’s Hall of Fame website.