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Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller (born 1945) became active in Native American causes in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s and gained skills in community organization and program development. With 56 percent of the vote, Mankiller became the first woman elected Cherokee principal chief in the historic Cherokee election of 1987.

Wilma Pearl Mankiller is both the first woman Deputy Chief and first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She overcame many personal tragedies and returned home to Mankiller Flats, Oklahoma, to establish herself as a political power working for the betterment of all people. Mankiller was born at Tahlequah, the capitol of the Cherokee Nation, in November 1945, and was raised until she was ten years old at Mankiller Flats. Her father was Charlie Mankiller, Cherokee, and her mother was Irene Mankiller, Dutch-Irish. She had four sisters and six brothers.

Trail of Tears

Mankiller's great-grandfather was one of the over 16,000 Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and African slaves who struggled along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma during the removal period, when Andrew Jackson was President in the 1830s. According to Carl Waldman in Atlas of the North American Indian, their journey was one of much pain and death: "At least a quarter of the Indians died before even reaching the Indian Territory. And many more died afterward, as they struggled to build new lives in the rugged terrain, with meager supplies and surrounded by hostile western Indians."

The Mankillers were very poor in Oklahoma, their ancestors being deposited there in 1838 and 1839, and it was difficult for Mankiller's father to maintain his family with any semblance of dignity. Although they did not want to move to California, Charlie Mankiller thought he could make a better life there for them and accepted a government offer to relocate. However, program promises faltered, money did not arrive, and there was often no employment available, so their life did not improve after their arrival in San Francisco.

The children were homesick even before they started for California. As Mankiller recalled in her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People,"I experienced my own Trail of Tears when I was a young girl. No one pointed a gun at me or at members of my family. No show of force was used. It was not necessary. Nevertheless, the United States government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was again trying to settle the 'Indian problem' by removal. I learned through this ordeal about the fear and anguish that occur when you give up your home, your community, and everything you have ever known to move far away to a strange place. I cried for days, not unlike the children who had stumbled down the Trail of Tears so many years before. I wept tears that came from deep within the Cherokee part of me. They were tears from my history, from my tribe's past. They were Cherokee tears."

In California, cringing at the snickering that always followed the school roll call when the teacher said "Mankiller," she nevertheless finished high school and pursued higher education. In the 1960s she attended Skyline Junior College in San Bruno then San Francisco State College. At San Francisco State she met and married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi. In 1964 they had a daughter, Felicia, and in 1966 another, Gina. In college, Mankiller was introduced to some of the Native Americans who would soon occupy and reclaim Alcatraz Island for the Native American people.

Alcatraz Occupation Fuels Political Awakening

The "invasion" of Alcatraz by the Native Americans quickly became a focal point for many Native people, Mankiller included. Because of the bold move onto Alcatraz by San Francisco State student and Mohawk Richard Oakes, along with his "All Tribes" group, Mankiller realized that her mission in life was to serve her people. She yearned for independence, something that caused a conflict with her marriage. "Once I began to become more independent, more active with school and in the community, it became increasingly difficult to keep my marriage together. Before that, Hugo had viewed me as someone he had rescued from a very bad life," she noted in her autobiography. In 1974 she was divorced and became a single head of the household. Mankiller longed to do more for her people. Soon she was volunteering to work for attorney Aubrey Grossman of San Francisco, who was defending the Pit River people against charges from Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

There were many political and social movements across America during the 1960s. To many Native people across America, however, the defiant occupation of Alcatraz in a challenge of treaty rights, which led to the arrest of many people, ushered in a new and real feeling of self-determination. "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 articulated my own feelings about being an Indian," Mankiller stated in her autobiography. She became involved in the movement and began a commitment to serve the Native people to the best of her ability in the area of law and legal defense.

Endures Personal Tragedies and Health Problems

In 1971, Mankiller's father died from a kidney disease in San Francisco, which she said "tore through my spirit like a blade of lightning." The family took Charlie Mankiller home to Oklahoma for burial, then Mankiller returned to California. It was not long before she too had kidney problems, inherited from her father. Her early kidney problems could be treated, though later she had to have surgery and eventually, in 1990, she had to have a transplant. Her brother Donald became her "hero" by donating one of his kidneys so that she could live.

In 1960, Mankiller's brother Bob was badly burned in a fire. Not wanting to be an added burden to the survival of the family, he had traveled north and was picking apples in Washington State. In the chill of early morning, he made a mistake by starting a fire with gasoline instead of kerosene, and his wooden shack exploded in flames. Bob survived for only six days. He was Mankiller's role model for a "care free" spirit.

In 1976, Mankiller returned to Oklahoma for good and found time to pursue higher education. She enrolled in graduate courses at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, which required her to drive the distance daily. She was returning home one morning when an automobile approached her on a blind curve and, from seemingly nowhere, another automobile attempted to pass it. She swerved to miss the approaching automobile, but failed. The vehicles hurtled together, almost head on.

Mankiller was seriously injured, and many thought she would not survive. The driver of the other automobile did not. It turned out to be Sherry Morris, Mankiller's best friend. It was terribly difficult, both physically and emotionally, but Mankiller recovered. Shortly after this accident, she came down with myasthenia gravis, a muscle disease. Again her life was threatened, but her will to live and her determination to mend her body with the power of her mind prevailed.

Becomes Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

In 1983, Ross Swimmer, then Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, asked Mankiller to be his Deputy Chief in the election. She accepted, and they won the election and took office on August 14, 1983. On December 5, 1985, Swimmer was nominated to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., and Mankiller was sworn in as Principal Chief.

Mankiller overcame many tragedies to become a guiding power for the Cherokee people of Oklahoma and a symbol of achievement for women everywhere. Yet through all the trying times, she worried for all people everywhere and planned for their happiness. She herself found love and strength in Charlie Soap. She gives him much credit for her successes and her will to overcome the many obstacles that threatened her political and physical life after her return to Oklahoma.

Throughout her life, Mankiller has managed to not complain about how bad things are for herself, for her people, and for Native people in general, but instead to help make life better. Fittingly, she was inducted into the Woman's Hall of Fame in New York City in 1994.

Further Reading

Mankiller, Wilma, and Michael Wallis, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Waldman, Carl, Atlas of the North American Indian, New York, Facts on File, 1985. □

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Mankiller, Wilma

Wilma Mankiller

Born: November 18, 1945
Tahlequah, Oklahoma

Native American community activist, tribal chief, and tribal legislator

Wilma Mankiller was the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. She works to improve the lives of Native Americans by helping them receive better education and health care and urges them to preserve and take pride in their traditions.

Early life

Wilma Mankiller was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, on November 18, 1945. Her father was Charlie Mankiller, a Cherokee, and her mother was Irene Mankiller, who was of Dutch-Irish ancestry. Wilma has four sisters and six brothers. Her great-grandfather was one of the more than sixteen thousand Native Americans and African slaves who were ordered by President Andrew Jackson (17671845) to walk from their former homes in the Southeast to new "Indian territory" in Oklahoma in the 1830s. The harsh weather, hunger, disease, and abuse from U.S. soldiers that the walkers experienced on what came to be called the Trail of Tears led to the deaths of at least four thousand of them.

The Mankillers were very poor in Oklahoma. Charlie Mankiller thought he could make a better life for them in California and accepted a government offer to relocate. However, promises that were made to the family were not kept, money did not arrive, and there was often no employment available, so their life did not improve after their arrival in San Francisco. The children were also homesick. As Mankiller recalled in her autobiography, called Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, "I experienced my own Trail of Tears when I was a young girl. No one pointed a gun at me or at members of my family. No show of force was used. It was not necessary. Nevertheless, the United States government, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was again trying to settle the 'Indian problem' by removal. I learned through this ordeal about the fear and anguish that occur when you give up your home, your community, and everything you have ever known to move far away to a strange place. I cried for days, not unlike the children who had stumbled down the Trail of Tears so many years before. I wept tears tears from my history, from my tribe's past. They were Cherokee tears."

Political awakening

Mankiller finished high school and took a job as a clerk. She met and married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi in 1963, and they had two daughters. Wilma settled into the role of wife and mother. This was a time when there were many political and social movements taking place across America. In 1969 her life was changed. San Francisco State student and Mohawk Richard Oakes (19421972), along with other Native Americans of different tribes, occupied an abandoned prison on Alcatraz island in the San Francisco Bay to call attention to the mistreatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government. The invasion was seen as a historic event by many Native American people, Mankiller included. "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 articulated [expressed] my own feelings about being an Indian," Mankiller stated in her autobiography. She began a commitment to serve the Native American people to the best of her ability in the area of law and legal defense.

In addition to wanting to help her people, Mankiller began to desire independence, and she began taking courses at a community college and later at San Francisco State. This caused a conflict with her marriage. "Once I began to become more independent, more active with school and in the community, it became increasingly difficult to keep my marriage together. Before that, Hugo had viewed me as someone he had rescued from a very bad life," she noted in her autobiography. In 1974 she was divorced and became a single head of the household.

Personal tragedies and health problems

In 1971 Mankiller's father died from a kidney disease in San Francisco, which she said "tore through my spirit like a blade of lightning." The family took Charlie Mankiller home to Oklahoma for burial, and then Wilma Mankiller returned to California. It was not long before she too had kidney problems, inherited from her father. Her early kidney problems could be treated, though eventually she had to have a transplant. Her brother Donald became her "hero" by donating one of his kidneys so that she could live.

In 1976 Mankiller returned to Oklahoma for good. She found a job as a community coordinator in the Cherokee tribal headquarters and enrolled in graduate courses at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. This required her to drive a long distance every day. She was returning home one morning in 1979 when a car approached her on a blind curve and, out of nowhere, another car attempted to pass it. She swerved to miss the approaching car but failed. The vehicles collided almost head-on. Mankiller was seriously injured, and many thought she would not survive. The driver of the other automobile did not. It turned out to be Sherry Morris, Mankiller's best friend. Mankiller had to overcome both her physical injuries and the guilt she experienced after the accident. Then in 1980 she came down with myasthenia gravis, a muscle disease. Again her life was threatened, but her will to live and her determination to heal her body with the power of her mind prevailed.

Becomes principal chief

In 1983 Ross Swimmer (1943), then principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, asked Mankiller to be his deputy chief in the election. While campaigning she was surprised by the criticism she receivednot for her stand on any particular issue, but simply because she was a woman. Swimmer and Mankiller won the election and took office in August. On December 5, 1985, Swimmer was nominated to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. Mankiller was sworn in to replace him as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. She focused on education and health care, overseeing the construction of new schools, job-training centers, and health clinics.

Mankiller overcame many tragedies to become a guiding power for the Cherokee people of Oklahoma and a symbol of achievement for women everywhere. Throughout her life, Mankiller has managed to not complain about how bad things were for herself, for her people, and for Native Americans in general. She instead has worked to help make life better. Although she declined to seek another term as principal chief in 1995 for health reasons, she remains in the public eye, writing and giving lectures across the country. She has stressed that if all the Native Americans who were eligible to vote actually did so, officials elected with those votes would be forced to address the problems of Native Americans. She also has called for an end to the increasing problem of violence against women. Mankiller was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in New York City in 1994 and was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-president Bill Clinton (1946) in 1998.

For More Information

Kucharczyk, Emily Rose. Wilma Mankiller. Woodbridge, CT: Blackbirch Press, 2002.

Mankiller, Wilma, and Michael Wallis. Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Yannuzzi, Della A. Wilma Mankiller: Leader of the Cherokee Nation. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1994.

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Mankiller, Wilma

Mankiller, Wilma 1945-

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Wilma Pearl Mankiller struggled successfully against male dominance, white privilege, and significant health problems to become the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Her accomplishments occurred in a social context of poverty, failed federal government relocation programs, and social protest movements for American Indians. Her ability to secure government funding for her tribe reflected movement toward assimilation and societal integration for women and American Indians. Mankillers support for Indian and female empowerment included social movements, politics, and protest. Thus, her legacy may also be viewed through the prism of resistance to oppression and oppositional culture.

Mankiller was born on November 18, 1945, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the sixth of eleven children of Charley Mankiller and Clara Irene Sitton. Her fathers family had endured the Trail of Tears, the forced removal of Cherokees in 1839 from the Tennessee Valley to Oklahoma, where they lived in severe poverty and had to conduct tribal ceremonies in secret. Despite these hardships, her family remained a source of comfort for her and taught her to be proud of her heritage and her family name, Mankiller, which was a Cherokee title given to a person who safeguarded a Cherokee village.

In 1956, her family was relocated to San Francisco, California, as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian Relocation Program, which attempted to sever Native Americans ties with their land and culture, thus helping the U.S. government avoid responsibility for the institutionalized oppression of American Indians. Despite facing poverty, prejudice, and discrimination, Mankiller found inspiration and support at the American Indian Center in San Francisco. As a young adult, she took a job at a financial company, married, and had two daughters.

Her activism was sparked by the 1969 to 1971 seizure of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans. She and others in her family took part in the protest as a way to draw attention to the plight of Native Americans. Through this experience, Mankiller met and befriended many of the leaders of Native American empowerment movements. Soon afterward, Mankiller was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease. Despite the diagnosis, Mankiller directed the Native American Youth Center in Oakland and continued her involvement in social protest movements on behalf of American Indians. She helped the Pit River tribe regain tribal land from the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which tried to assert ownership over their land. Mankiller worked for the tribe for five years, organized a legal defense fund, and researched treaty rights and international law to aid their cause.

More interested in activism than in being a housewife, Mankiller divorced her husband and moved back to Oklahoma with her children in 1977. She used her skills acquired in San Francisco to work for the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma as an economic stimulus coordinator. In 1981, Mankiller founded and directed the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department, which received acclaim for rehabilitating the small Cherokee community of Bell, Oklahoma. She accomplished this despite recovering from a serious car accident that killed a friend and receiving treatment for systemic myasthenia gravis, a form of muscular dystrophy.

In 1983, she ran for deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation. She won the election and became the Cherokee Nations first female deputy chief despite death threats because of her sex. She was appointed the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985 after the presiding principal chief was nominated to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1987, she won a tough election and, while actively leading the Cherokee Nation, underwent a kidney transplant in 1990. In 1991, Mankiller was reelected principal chief with 83 percent of the votes cast. In 1995, she chose not to run again and instead accepted a fellowship at Dartmouth College.

During her term as Cherokee chief, tribal revenue increased, $20 million was secured for construction projects, an $8 million Job Corps center was created, and funding was secured for programs aiding women and children and to reform the Cherokee judiciary. She also developed economic and educational empowerment programs in which women and men worked collectively for community improvement under the Cherokee tradition of gadugi, which emphasizes gender equity. In 1996, she was diagnosed with lymphoma and received treatment while continuing to write, edit, and participate in community organizations. In 1998, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Wilma Mankiller nurtured economic development for American Indians and paved new paths to leadership for women of color. She exemplifies greater economic and political assimilation for women and American Indians. Mankillers significance also rests in resistance to institutional and cultural racism and sexism through embracing social protest and oppositional culture.

SEE ALSO American Indian Movement; Cherokees; Native Americans; Protest; Resistance; Trail of Tears; Women and Politics

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Edmunds, R. David, ed. 2001. The New Warriors: Native American Leaders since 1900. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Mankiller, Wilma. 2000. Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martins.

Mankiller, Wilma, Gwendolyn Mink, Marysa Navarro, Barbra Smith, and Gloria Steinem, eds. 1998. The Readers Companion to U.S. Womens History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Steven M. Frenk

Vasilios T. Bournas

Wayne Luther Thompson

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"Mankiller, Wilma." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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