Wilma Mankiller (1945 - 2010)
“Prior to my election, Cherokee girls would have never thought that they might grow up and become chief.”
Wilma Mankiller, whose great-grandfather survived the deadly forced march of Native Americans Westward known as the “Trail of Tears,” rose to lead the Cherokee Nation more than 150 years later as principal chief – the first elected female chief of a Native nation in modern times. Throughout her reign from 1985-1995, cut short only by her own severe health challenges, she advocated for extensive community development, self-help, education and healthcare programs that revitalized the Nation of 300,000 citizens.
The sixth of 11 children, Mankiller, whose family name refers to a traditional Cherokee rank, was born in 1945 and raised on tribal lands in Tahlequah, Oklahoma in a home without electricity, indoor plumbing or telephones. Her father, Charley Mankiller was a full-blooded Cherokee, and her mother, Clara Irene Sitton, was of Dutch-Irish descent. In 1956, the family moved to San Francisco as part of a relocation policy to reclaim federally subsidized reservations in exchange for jobs in big cities. But jobs were sporadic and the family continued to struggle with finances, homesickness, and discrimination. “I experienced my own Trail of Tears,” Mankiller later wrote in her autobiography. “I wept tears that came from deep within the Cherokee part of me. They were tears from my history, from my tribe’s past. They were Cherokee tears”
In 1963, she married Hugo Olaya, an Ecuadorean businessman, and they had two daughters, Gina and Felicia. As a wave of political activism began sweeping the nation, Mankiller started visiting the Indian activists who for 19 months called attention to their plight by occupying the abandoned federal prison on Alcatraz Island in 1969. She began taking college courses at night while working as a coordinator of Indian programs for the Oakland public schools.
In 1977, after her marriage ended in divorce, Mankiller and her daughters returned to Oklahoma and her grandfather’s land in Mankiller Flats, where she eventually married her longtime friend, Charlie Lee Soap, a full-blood Cherokee traditionalist and fluent Cherokee speaker. Soon, she founded the Community Development Department for the Cherokee Nation, spurring projects that made dramatic improvements in community water systems and housing during the administration of Principal Chief Ross Swimmer. In 1983, Swimmer successfully ran for re-election with Mankiller as his running mate, making her the first woman ever elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation. And when Swimmer left office two years later to lead the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, Mankiller assumed the principal chief’s office. Despite opposition from the male-dominated Nation leadership at the time, she was elected in her own campaign in 1987, and re-elected again in 1991 in a landslide victory, collecting 83% of the vote. A string of health problems over the years that included lymphoma, a neuromuscular disorder, kidney failure and pancreatic cancer, dogged her throughout her career.
During her three terms, Mankiller tripled her tribe's enrollment, doubled employment and built new housing, health centers and children's programs in northeast Oklahoma. Under her leadership, infant mortality declined and educational achievement rose. In 1990, she signed an historic self-determination agreement in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs surrendered direct control over millions of dollars in federal funding to the tribe. Her leadership on social and financial issues made her tribe a national role model and she remained a strong voice worldwide for social justice, native people and women after she left office in 1995.
Mankiller, was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, the highest honor given to civilians in the United States and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. That same year, she published her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, and said she wanted to be remembered for emphasizing that Cherokee values can help solve contemporary problems. She also served as a guest professor at Dartmouth College.