Published on January 28, 2013 by Amy
Wilma Pearl Mankiller (November 18, 1945 – April 6, 2010) was the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation. She served as principal chief for ten years from 1985 to 1995.
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Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the sixth of eleven children, to Charley Mankiller (November 15, 1914 – February 20, 1971) and Clara Irene Sitton (born September 18, 1921). Her father was a full-blooded Cherokee and her mother was a Caucasian woman of Dutch and Irish descent who acculturated herself to Cherokee life.
The family surname, Mankiller, refers to a traditional Cherokee military rank; it is Asgaya-dihi in the Cherokee language. Alternative spellings are Outacity or Outacite.
The Mankiller family was destitute, and initially resided on Charley’s allotment lands of Mankiller Flats near Rocky Mountain, Oklahoma. In 1942, during World War II, the United States Army exercised eminent domain for military purposes and took over the land of 45 Cherokee families, including the Mankillers, in order to expand Camp Gruber. The Mankillers willingly left Oklahoma under the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Indian Relocation Program. The family relocated to San Francisco in 1956, and later settled in Daly City.
In 1963, at the age of 17, Mankiller married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi, an Ecuadorian college student. They moved to Oakland and had two daughters, Felicia Olaya, born in 1964, and Gina Olaya, born in 1966.
Mankiller returned to school, first at Skyline College, and then San Francisco State University. Her bachelor’s degree in the social sciences was from Flaming Rainbow University in Stilwill, OK, and she did graduate work at the University of Arkansas. She had been very involved in San Francisco’s Indian Center throughout her time in California. In the late 1960s, Mankiller joined the activist movement and participated in the Occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. For five years, she volunteered for the Pit River Tribe.
After divorcing Hugo Olaya, in 1977 Mankiller moved back to Oklahoma with her two young daughters, in hopes of helping her own people. She began an entry-level job for the Cherokee Nation.
By 1983, Mankiller was elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation, alongside Ross Swimmer, who was serving his third consecutive term as principal chief. In 1985, Chief Swimmer resigned when appointed as head of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. Mankiller succeeded him as the first female principal chief of the Cherokee. She was elected in her own campaign in 1987, and re-elected again in 1991 in a landslide victory, collecting 83% of the vote. In 1995, Mankiller chose not to run again for chief, largely due to health problems.
Mankiller faced many obstacles during her tenure in office. At the time she became chief, the Cherokee Nation leadership was male-dominated. Such a structure contrasted with the traditional Cherokee culture and value system, which tended to include both sexes in leadership positions, though in somewhat different capacities.
Over the course of her three terms, Mankiller reinvigorated the Cherokee Nation through community-development projects where men and women work collectively for the common good. These were funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs “Self Help” programs, initiated by the United Keetoowah Band, and with the help of the Federal government’s self-determination monies. The projects included establishing tribally owned businesses (such as horticultural operations and plants with government defense contracts), improving infrastructure (such as providing running water to the community of Bell, Oklahoma), and building a hydroelectric facility.
Under the US Federal policy of Native American self-determination, Mankiller improved federal-tribal negotiations. She helped prepare for today’s Government-to-Government relationship which the Cherokee Nation has with the US Federal Government.
Her administration founded the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department, revived the tribal Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah, and saw a population increase of Cherokee Nation citizens from 55,000 to 156,000. “Prior to my election,” says Mankiller, “young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up and become chief.”
After her term as chief, she took a teaching position at Dartmouth College. She died in April 2010.
Of the passing of Wilma Mankiller, President Obama stated:
“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Wilma Mankiller today. As the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, she transformed the Nation-to-Nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the Federal Government, and served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she was recognized for her vision and commitment to a brighter future for all Americans. Her legacy will continue to encourage and motivate all who carry on her work. Michelle and I offer our condolences to Wilma’s family, especially her husband Charlie and two daughters, Gina and Felicia, as well as the Cherokee Nation and all those who knew her and were touched by her good works.”
In 1979, she was involved in a near fatal car accident which required multiple surgeries. She had multiple other health problems including myasthenia gravis, a kidney transplant, breast cancer, and lymphoma. After many years working together on Cherokee community development projects, Mankiller married her longtime friend, Charlie Lee Soap, a full-blood Cherokee traditionalist and fluent Cherokee speaker, in 1986. They lived on Mankiller’s ancestral land at Mankiller Flats. In March 2010 she was reported to be seriously ill with pancreatic cancer. She died of the disease at her home in rural Adair County, Oklahoma, on April 6, 2010. She is survived by her husband and both her daughters. About 1,200 people attended her memorial service at the Cherokee National Cultural Grounds in Tahlequah on April 10.
She won several awards including Ms. Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1987, Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame, Woman of the Year, the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, John W. Gardner Leadership Award, Independent Sector, and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
Her first book, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, an autobiography, became a national bestseller. Gloria Steinem said in a review that, “As one woman’s journey, Mankiller opens the heart. As the history of a people, it informs the mind. Together, it teaches us that, as long as people like Wilma Mankiller carry the flame within them, centuries of ignorance and genocide can’t extinguish the human spirit.” Steinem went on to become one of Mankiller’s closest friends. In 2004, Mankiller co-authored Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women.
Mankiller is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the first woman chief of a Native American tribe. In the 20th century, Alice Brown Davis became Principal Chief of the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma in 1922, and Mildred Cleghorn became the Chairperson of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe in 1976. In earlier times, a number of women led their tribes.
In 1994, Mankiller and the singer Patsy Cline were among the inductees into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. She was also inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1994.
A 2013 feature film, The Cherokee Word for Water, tells the story of the Bell waterline project that helped launch Mankiller’s political career, and was also the start of her friendship with her future husband, Charlie Soap. In the film, Mankiller is portrayed by actress Kimberly Norris Guerrero, and Soap by actor Moses Brings Plenty.