Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010) was the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and the first woman to be elected the leader of a major Native American tribe. She devoted her life to fighting for Native American rights and guiding her community.
Wilma was one of eleven children born to Clara and Charley Mankiller in Oklahoma. They spoke Cherokee and English at their home which had no indoor plumbing and no electricity. What it did have, though, was a community that alleviated much of the hardship they faced.
When Wilma was 11, she and her family moved to San Francisco as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ relocation programme – “[her] own little trail of tears.” The move was meant to create new opportunities for the family, but it caused acute financial hardship and loneliness as they were separated from their community. Wilma did not enjoy her school years, in part due to the cruelty of the children, but she eventually graduated and got a job in a finance company. It was at that time that she met her first husband and by 1966 they had two daughters.
The 60s was a time of political movements and Wilma’s passions were ignited by occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans in 1969. She was also inspired by the women’s movement, and she began to work with Native communities, helping to empower them.
After her divorce in 1977, Wilma returned to Oklahoma with her daughters. There, she remarried and founded the Community Development Department for the Cherokee Nation which helped to improve access to water and housing in tribal lands.
In 1985, Wilma was elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and she led her community for a decade. During her leadership, the population doubled from 68,000 to 170,000 people. She transformed her community, and much could have been further improved if she’d had more time.
Ill-health prevented Wilma from running for Principal Chief for a third tenure in office. She handed over the reins to focus on her health, though that did not prevent her from continuing to speak on women’s rights, Native rights, and health care.
Wilma Mankiller died in 2010 after devoting her life to her people, her heritage, and to making the world a better place. In 1998, she had been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton as a testament to her hard work. She is a female ruler worth remembering.
D. J. Herda, Wilma Mankiller: How One Woman United the Cherokee Nation and Helped Change the Face of America (Maryland: TwoDot Books, 2022)
Wilma Mankiller and Michael Wallis, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People (New York: Griffin, 2000).