Women’s History Month Profiles: Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee Nation Chief

During Women’s History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of woman innovators and history makers like Wilma Mankiller, who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout March to learn about more important figures.

Born: Nov. 18, 1945, Tehlequah, Oklahoma
Died: April 6, 2010, Adair County, Oklahoma
Best known for: Being the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

Wilma Mankiller’s great-grandfather survived the deadly “Trail of Tears,” the forced removal of Native Americans westward between 1830 and 1850. Generations later, Wilma was elected as the first woman to be the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. During her career, she advocated for community development, self-help, education and healthcare programs that uplifted the Cherokee Nation.

Mankiller was born to a Cherokee father and Dutch-Irish mother in 1945. She was the sixth of eleven children, and when she was 11, the family moved from their ancestral home in Oklahoma to the Bay Area in California. Although she did not want to leave Oklahoma, she became involved in the Indigenous community in San Francisco, joining activists who were fighting to reclaim the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco’s harbor.

She married for the first time in 1963 and had two daughters. In 1969, a group of Native American students gained control of the abandoned Alcatraz prison, gaining national media attention and inspiring Mankiller to become involved in Indigenous issues. Alcatraz changed Mankiller’s trajectory, causing her to become an activist. She took college courses at night while working during the day as a coordinator of Indian programs at the Oakland public schools. Mankiller and her husband divorced in 1977, and she took her children back to her ancestral home in Oklahoma.

In 1979, she suffered an automobile accident that killed her friend. She spent a year in recovery, and even after she recovered, she was diagnosed with a chronic neuromuscular disease that made it difficult for her to speak and do basic tasks like hold a pencil or brush her hair. Still, her activism continued. She soon remarried and founded the Community Development Department for the Cherokee Nation, focusing on improving access to water and housing for the community under Principal Chief Ross Swimmer.

In 1983, Swimmer was re-elected to his position, this time, with Mankiller as his running mate. She was the first elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation. Two years later, Mankiller became the principal chief when Swimmer left office to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In subsequent years, Mankiller was elected — and re-elected — through her own campaigns. In the 1991 election, she won 83% of the votes but despite her success, she also faced threats including her car getting vandalized and her safety threatened during her first campaign. Mankiller later wrote in her 1993 autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People that European colonialism disrupted the traditional gender balance within the tribe. Her book weaves traditional Cherokee stories and historical accounts into her own personal narrative. She wrote that women traditionally had agency in Cherokee tribes, and women’s councils were common. Mankiller’s leadership sought to restore that balance.

Mankiller suffered from health issues during her career. In addition to her neuromuscular condition, she also suffered from lymphoma, kidney failure and pancreatic cancer. Still, she continued to lead, greatly improving the lives of the Cherokee people. Her work focused on issues of education, employment and healthcare. She tripled her tribe’s enrollment, improved employment and built new houses, health centers and children’s programs in the northeast region of Oklahoma. Under her leadership, infant mortality declined, and educational achievement rose.

In 1990, she secured millions of dollars in federal funding to the Cherokee tribe by signing a self-determination agreement with the U.S. government. In 1993, Mankiller was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She also served as a guest professor at Dartmouth College.

Mankiller left office in 1995, but continued to be an activist, advocating for women’s and Indigenous rights worldwide. In 1998, Mankiller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Women can help turn the world right side up. We bring a more collaborative approach to government,” Mankiller wrote in her book. “If we do not participate, then decisions will be made without us.”

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