Published on February 26, 2013 by Amy
Wilma Mankiller was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, on November 18, 1945. In 1985, Mankiller became the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. She sought to improve the nation’s health care, education system and government. She decided not to seek re-election in 1995 due to ill health. After leaving office, Mankiller remained an activist for Native American rights and women’s rights until her death on April 6, 2010, in Adair County, Oklahoma.
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Cherokee chief, social activist. Born on November 18, 1945, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. A descendant of the Native Americans who were forced to leave their homelands in 1830s, Wilma Mankiller became a leading advocate for the Cherokee people and the first woman to serve as their principal chief. As a child, she left Oklahoma with her family to San Francisco, California, in hopes of a better life. Unfortunately, the family still struggled in their new home.
During the 1960s, Wilma Mankiller was inspired by the attempts by Native Americans to reclaim the island of Alcatraz to become more active in Native American issues. She became interested in helping her people, deciding to return to Oklahoma in 1976. Mankiller went to work for the government of the Cherokee Nation as a tribal planner and program developer.
Wilma Mankiller nearly lost her life in a deathly car accident, in which she was struck head on by her best friend. Her friend died, and Mankiller had numerous surgeries as a part of her long recovery process. She then had to battle a neuromuscular disease known as myasthenia gravis, which can lead to paralysis. Again, Mankiller was able to overcome her health challenges.
In 1983, Wilma Mankiller ran for deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation. Only two years after winning that post, she became the tribe??s principal chief. Mankiller made history as the first woman to ever serve as that nation??s leader. She remained on the job for two full terms after that, winning elections in 1987 and 1991. A popular leader, Mankiller sought to improve the nation??s health care, education system, and government. She decided not to seek re-election in 1995 because of ill health.
Since leaving office, Wilma Mankiller has remained active in causes related to Native American rights and women??s rights. She has shared her experiences as a pioneer in tribal government in her 1993 autobiography Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. Mankiller also wrote and compiled Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women (2004), which featured a forward by leading feminist Gloria Steinem.
For more than two decades, Wilma Mankiller led her people through difficult times. She has received numerous honors for her leadership and social activism, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. Mankiller has two daughters from her first marriage. She has been married to second husband Charlie Soap since 1986.