Wilma Mankiller, first feminine principal chief of Cherokee Nation, led with compassion and continues to encourage at present


When you fish in your pocket or purse for a U.S. quarter at present, there’s an opportunity you’ll see Wilma Mankiller’s face. She was the Cherokee Nation’s first feminine principal chief, and she or he impressed generations of Cherokees and younger Native folks like me.

In 2022, Mankiller was one of many first ladies honored by showing on a collection of quarters, together with famend poet and activist Maya Angelou and physicist and astronaut Sally Trip. Mankiller’s quarter, issued in the summertime of 2022, marks the primary time {that a} Native American lady has been featured on a U.S. coin since Sacagawea appeared on the golden greenback in 2000.

As a historian of Native American historical past, I credit score my skilled profession to Mankiller, whom I heard communicate at Salem Ladies’s Faculty once I was an undergraduate scholar there. I had by no means seen a non-Native viewers pay attention so intently to a lady who seemed like my father’s ancestors and grew up in rural Oklahoma, as he did. Like many younger Cherokee folks, I used to be raised outdoors the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation.

Following her lecture, I tore by her autobiography, “Mankiller: A Chief and Her Folks.” In her e book and thru her life’s work, Mankiller launched a era of individuals not simply to Cherokee historical past but in addition to a mannequin of Native ladies’s management, main by listening to the voices from her group and supporting the applications they sought.


Mankiller’s life resembled many Native folks’s lives within the twentieth century earlier than she assumed the position of principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985.

She was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, at an Indian hospital in 1945. She grew up on land secured by Cherokee folks over three generations of shifting U.S. federal Indian insurance policies, every with devastating outcomes: the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, the Treaty of 1866 and the Curtis Act in 1898.

Mankiller’s household relocated to San Francisco within the Nineteen Fifties after Congress handed the termination and relocation coverage, in search of to break up and relocate Native American tribes to assimilate them. In San Francisco she met Indigenous folks from numerous communities.

Mankiller’s duties as chief included attending the Arkansas Riverbed Authority conferences to debate a number of Native communities’ entry to water.
Tom Gilbert/Tulsa World by way of AP Pictures

She got here of age in San Francisco throughout the Crimson Energy Motion, which was marked by Indigenous folks’s activism throughout the nation and aimed to attract consideration to damaged treaty guarantees, widespread dispossession and police brutality. She and her siblings supported the occupation of Alcatraz, a takeover by Native activists that lasted 18 months.

She married younger, had youngsters and willed herself by a school training. She divorced and returned house to Oklahoma in 1976 as a single guardian with two daughters. Mankiller’s household historical past, like that of so many Native Individuals on this nation, can’t be advised or understood with out understanding adjustments in federal Indian coverage, which frequently dictated the place Native folks lived and the financial alternatives obtainable to them.

What she means to Cherokee folks

Mankiller’s life was much like these of many households who remained in Oklahoma on allotments or inside Cherokee communities after Oklahoma turned a state in 1907. Till the age of 11, she grew up in Adair County, which was about 46% Cherokee within the 2020 census.

When she returned to Oklahoma from California within the late Seventies to work for the Cherokee Nation, she prioritized and supported a community-driven venture that introduced operating water to the Bell group. Bell, a rural group in Adair County, remains to be house to giant pockets of Cherokee folks. This effort was later dramatized within the 2013 movie “The Cherokee Phrase for Water.” Mankiller’s dedication to enhancing the lives of Cherokee folks was central to her work, even earlier than she turned chief.

Her rise to the place of principal chief in 1985 coincided with a second when the efforts of civil rights activists, Black nationalists, Crimson Energy and ladies’s rights activists of the earlier many years had been bearing fruit. She represented and modeled what folks like Gloria Steinem, with whom Mankiller fashioned an everlasting friendship, hoped to see extra folks obtain within the bigger U.S.

A tall white man with thick gray hair places medal around neck of shorter woman with cropped brown hair
President Clinton awards Wilma Mankiller the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Paul J. Richards/AFP by way of Getty Pictures

Mankiller’s impression prolonged past Cherokee folks. In a nod to her accomplishments, President Invoice Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. Mankiller understood that she represented how far ladies leaders had come and the hope we would nonetheless arrive the place we must be.

I nonetheless bear in mind studying of her loss of life from pancreatic most cancers in April 2010 once I was a graduate scholar in historical past on the College of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, not removed from Salem Faculty the place she first impressed me. I, like many others I think about, wept for her, enormously pleased with all she had achieved.

The Cherokee worth of gadugi

Mankiller’s transition to chief wasn’t straightforward. Folks initially questioned a lady’s capability to guide the tribe. If there was any doubt of Mankiller’s capabilities as a frontrunner when she took over as chief in 1985, in her second election to workplace six years later, she obtained nearly 83% of the vote.

She gained assist by exemplifying gadugi – a Cherokee phrase which means working collectively collectively for the good thing about the entire group. She drew upon her tradition, historical past and tribal id as a frontrunner, and she or he raised her daughters Gina and Felicia Olaya to do the identical. Although neither held workplace, each have labored for and supported the Cherokee Nation all through their lives.

Throughout her time as chief, Mankiller supplied a basis for the continued development of the Cherokee Nation. Enrollment in Cherokee Nation doubled underneath her management. She championed training and secured a US$9 million vocational middle. A 1991 Parade Journal profile described her management type as quiet however sturdy.

At her mom’s memorial, Gina, who died in October 2022, stated that her mom taught her household “tips on how to chuckle, tips on how to dance, to understand Motown music, to be a humble servant to our folks, to like each other unequivocally and to cherish every second we spent collectively as a household.”

Mankiller articulated what generations of Cherokee folks knew – that Indigenous persons are able to producing the options to the issues they face. As chief, she centered on points that benefited a number of the most susceptible Cherokee folks, equivalent to rural improvement, housing, employment and training. Mankiller listened to group members to find out the way in which ahead. I consider her legacy, now enshrined on 1 / 4, will proceed to encourage new generations of individuals in search of to make a distinction on the earth.

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