(Wilma Pearl Mankiller)
born November 18, 1945, Cherokee Flats, Talequah, Oklahoma
died April 6, 2010, 2010, Adair County, Oklahoma
Cherokee activist and author, first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation
Wilma Mankiller – her surname is that of a tribal military rank – was born in 1945 in Talequah, Oklahoma, the sixth of eleven children. In 1956, as part of the Federal Relocation Act to move Indians off reservations and into large cities, her family was relocated to San Francisco. She later described the move as “my own little Trail of Tears,” referring to the forced removal in the 1830s of Indians from southeastern states to Oklahoma to make way for white settlers. She married, but within a few years was divorced; in 1977 she moved with her two daughters back to Oklahoma.
Mankiller started to become active politically during the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native people, visiting them there often and raising money for their causes. While living in California, she returned to school and earned a bachelors degree. She was also very active in San Francisco’s Indian Center. Back in Oklahoma, she volunteered in tribal affairs and worked to improve schools and health programs. She founded and later became director of the community development department of the Cherokee Nation, focusing her efforts on rural water systems and housing. Principal Chief Ross Swimmer chose her as his running mate in 1983. They won, and Wilma became the first deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation. Two years later, when Swimmer resigned to take a different post, Mankiller succeeded him as Principal Chief; in 1987 and again in 1991, she ran for the office and became Principal Chief in her own right.
During her three terms in office, Mankiller worked on community development projects and helped establish tribally owned businesses. Other efforts included providing running water to remote Bell, Oklahoma, building a hydroelectric facility, and reviving the tribal Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah. Many of her achievements coincided with severe health problems. In 1979 she was nearly killed in a car accident and required many surgeries. She also had myasthenia gravis, a kidney transplant, breast cancer, and lymphoma – but she kept going. Mankiller became close friends with feminist Gloria Steinem, who noted, “as long as people like Wilma Mankiller carry the flame within them, centuries of ignorance and genocide can’t extinguish the human spirit.”
Wilma received many awards, including Ms. Magazine’s Woman of the Year award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was elected to the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1986, she married her long-time friend Charlie Soap, a full-blooded Cherokee traditionalist. In March 2010 Mankiller was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died of the disease in April of that year. Friends recall her words, “I want to be remembered as the person who helped us restore faith in ourselves.”
Author: Dorian Brooks
“Every step I take forward is on a path paved by strong Indian women before me.” – Wilma Mankiller
Literature & Sources
Erling, John.2009. Interview with Wilma Mankiller for Voices of Oklahoma. http://www.voicesofoklahoma.com/interview/mankiller-wilma/
Mankiller, Wilma. 2011. Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing. Introduction by Gloria Steinem.
Mankiller, Wilma and Michael Wallis. 1999. Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
National Public Radio. 2014. Interview with Wilma Mankiller. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01nvKDmct6Q
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