The Life of Wilma Mankiller, First Woman to Serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

The first woman to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller was a national icon. Her visionary, principled leadership set a standard for generations of women to follow, reminding us to challenge the status quo and overcome barriers for the betterment of our neighbors, communities and nation. She worked to create jobs, break down social and economic barriers, improve access to healthcare, and address the roots of both rural and urban poverty, leading her people with dignity and grace. A trailblazer in Oklahoma and American history, her inspirational life and transformative leadership continues to inspire us today.

  1. The Mankiller Family in Oklahoma.

    Photo By: Image Courtesy of Charlie Soap

    Mankiller Flats and Tahlequah, Oklahoma

    One of eleven children, Wilma Mankiller was born in 1945 in Tahlequah and raised in Mankiller Flats, Oklahoma, on land hard-earned by a resilient people who had endured a long, tumultuous history. Growing up, young Mankiller learned a love of the land and of her Cherokee identity. When she was 10, the federal government relocated her family from Mankiller Flats to a poverty-stricken area of San Francisco.

  2. GOGA-2316 Alcatraz dock during the Indian Occupation

    Photo By: Golden Gate National Recreation Area Archives via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

    Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay, California

    Reminiscent of the Cherokee Nation’s forced march from their North Carolina homelands to “Indian Country” in Oklahoma in 1838, the Mankiller family’s relocation to San Francisco was part of a 1950s-era U.S. government program to terminate American Indian tribes by separating Indian people from their tribal communities. Unfamiliar surroundings and the grief of a homeland left behind strengthened young Wilma’s determination to retain her Cherokee identity and contributed to her decision to join the historic 1969 American Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island. Citing a treaty that gives Native Americans the right to occupy unused land in the United States, the occupation grew to include thousands of Indian people. The movement shined an international spotlight on the “trail of broken treaties” and the forcing of Native people onto reservations that were a fraction of their original homelands. Mankiller’s time on Alcatraz ignited a flame that would guide and sustain her life’s work.

  3. Wilma Mankiller reading to children.

    Photo By: Image Courtesy of The Mankiller Foundation

    Oakland's Native American Youth Center

    Forever changed by Alcatraz and inspired by the women’s movement, Mankiller worked to empower the Native communities surrounding her in California, serving as director of Oakland’s Native American Youth Center. She believed that restoring pride in Native heritage could reduce the downward spiral of Native youth growing up on the streets. She supported California’s Pit River Tribe in its legal battle against Pacific Gas and Electric over the rights to millions of acres of the tribal land, learning practical applications of the exercise of tribal sovereignty and treaty rights, knowledge that she would bring back to her own Cherokee community.

  4. Wilma Mankiller and others digging a waterline in Bell, Oklahoma.

    Photo By: Courtesy of Charlie Soap

    Bell, Oklahoma

    In 1977, Mankiller was a single mother of two living in her car parked by a stream in Oklahoma, struggling to find employment and adapt back into her community after a twenty-year absence. She landed a job as the Cherokee Nation’s economic stimulus coordinator, and later founded the Cherokee Nation’s Community Development Department. Her first project was in Bell, Oklahoma, a small Cherokee community of 200 families with no running water, high unemployment, and a persistent sense of disempowerment. Mankiller’s belief in communities’ ability to work collectively for the common good enabled Bell residents to construct a 16-mile waterline over a 14-month period, resulting in a full-length feature film, "The Cherokee Word for Water." In 1995, Mankiller was elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, the first and only woman to ever achieve that office. As Chief, her unsurpassed achievements in job creation, healthcare, and cultural revitalization are legendary.

  5. Mankiller receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.

    Photo By: Screencapture via Wikimedia Commons, Clinton Presidential Library.

    Receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in Washington, D.C.

    in 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Mankiller the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her autobiography, "Mankiller: A Chief and Her People," was published in 2000. Her selection as Ms Magazine’s Woman of the Year began a lifelong friendship with feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Steinem, who was by her side when Mankiller died on April 6, 2010 at age 64, said of her friend, “Ancient traditions call for setting signal fires to light the way home for a great one; fires were lit in 23 countries after Wilma's death. The millions she touched will continue her work, but I will miss her every day of my life.”

This profile was submitted by the MICA Group, a national nonprofit founded by Chief Wilma Mankiller in 2006. MICA partners with indigenous communities, governments, and foundations to build social and economic capital in Indian Country through innovative, culturally appropriate strategies.

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