Wilma Mankiller

1945-2010
By Ray Tyler | 2018

Wilma Mankiller is often remembered as the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation but her life was filled with activism from the beginning. “In order to understand how I operate, it is necessary to understand that I came from an activist family,” Mankiller says of her upbringing. It was in the home that she began to care about social issues but her distinctly native approach to solving those problems was developed outside the home.

Wilma was the sixth of eleven children; born to a Cherokee father, Charley Mankiller, and a Dutch-Irish mother, Irene Sitton, on November 18, 1945. When Wilma was 11, the family moved from their rural ancestral home in Oklahoma to the bay area of California. The Mankillers were a poor family with 13 mouths to feed. Charley was open to trying a new place that offered greater financial opportunity and Irene reluctantly agreed. Wilma did not want to leave Oklahoma, but it was in California that she first developed her social activism. She became involved in San Francisco’s Indian Center and was captivated by Native American efforts to reclaim Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.

She married for the first time in 1963. The couple had two daughters but the marriage was difficult. Then, in 1969, a dramatic event changed the trajectory of Wilma’s life. Some Native American students gained control of the abandoned Alcatraz prison in San Francisco’s harbor. The occupation gained national media attention and awakened the young Cherokee mother to the issues afflicting native people in the United States. Wilma was determined get involved in the Native community but her husband wanted her to remain a traditional housewife. Mankiller said of her changing attitude, “…when Alcatraz occurred, I became aware of what needed to be done to let the rest of the world know that Indians had rights too.” Alcatraz was the “benchmark” for her conversion to fulltime activism.

After divorcing in 1977, Wilma took her daughters and moved back to Oklahoma to build a life for herself and her family on the Cherokee reservation. In Oklahoma, Wilma Mankiller overcame two serious personal setbacks before continuing her career as an Indian activist. In 1979 she was seriously injured in an automobile accident that took the life of her best friend. She spent nearly a year recovering and reflecting on her purpose in life. She embraced the Cherokee vision of “being of good mind.” For Mankiller, this meant thinking positively about what happens in your life, taking whatever comes your way and doing your best to serve others.  She needed the “good mind approach” more than ever when, after recovering from her accident, she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a chronic neuromuscular disease that made it difficult to speak, hold a pencil, or brush her hair. “I thought a lot about what I wanted to do with my life during that time. The reality of how precious life is enabled me to begin projects I couldn’t have otherwise tackled.”

Mankiller was energized with a new sense of purpose in her life and she soon found the perfect project for her drive and talent in the tiny community of Bell, Oklahoma. Bell was a small village on the Cherokee reservation where most of the residents were poor and spoke only Cherokee. Most were living in unsafe, run-down housing without running water. Using money from grants and the federal government, Mankiller organized a community self-help project where volunteers from Bell constructed an 18-mile-long water system and repaired the dangerous housing. Her efforts earned her national recognition as the Ms Magazine Woman of the Year in 1987. While recruiting volunteers for the Bell water project, she met, and eventually married, Charlie Soap, a full-blooded Cherokee.

Mankiller became deputy principle chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1983 on the strength of her reputation as a community leader. When the principle chief resigned in 1985, Wilma became the first female Principle Chief of the modern Cherokee Nation, the second largest tribe in the United States. In 1987 Wilma Mankiller ran for election as the principle chief in the face of stiff opposition. Her car was vandalized and her safety was threatened but she relied on her knowledge of Cherokee and Indian culture for her confidence in the ability of women to lead the tribe. In traditional Cherokee culture, women played a vital role in the social and political life of the tribe. Women’s councils were common. One Cherokee legend tells the story of Gbigau a word that can be translated as “War Woman,” illustrating that Cherokee culture embraced women in power. In her autobiography, Mankiller eloquently describes the delicate balance Cherokees believe exist in the well-ordered world between men and women. She argues that it was European conquest that disrupted that balance. For Mankiller, having a female chief was just a small step toward restoring the proper balance between the sexes in the world of the Cherokees. 

As chief, Mankiller focused on education, job training, and healthcare for her people. She was a consensus builder, working with the federal government to pilot a self-government agreement for the Cherokee Nation and with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Wilma Mankiller died from pancreatic cancer in 2010 but her legacy continues in her work, and her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. The book is not simply the story of her life. Each chapter begins with a Cherokee myth or legend depicting a core attitude in the Cherokee culture. Throughout the book, Mankiller narrates Cherokee and Indian history, their struggles with European conquest, and their struggle to maintain their cultural identity and dignity in the dominant society. Mankiller’s story is inseparable from the story of her people.

Questions:

  1. Identify character traits of Wilma Mankiller that made her an effective leader.
  2. Name three obstacles that Wilma Mankiller had to overcome in her life.
  3. Identify sources of strength Wilma Mankiller used to overcome those obstacles.