BORN: November 18, 1945 • Tahlequah, Oklahoma
Native American political leader, social activist
Wilma Mankiller, a member of the Cherokee Nation (Native American tribal government located in Oklahoma), became a social activist in the 1960s, seeking an end to prejudice and discrimination against Native Americans in the United States. When she became Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985, Mankiller was the first female chief of a major tribal government in the United States. The Cherokee Nation was the second largest tribe in the United States. Only the Navajo had more members. During her ten years as Principal Chief, Mankiller was a driving force in the economic development of the tribe, with a goal of becoming economically self-sufficient.
"Prior to my election, young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up and become chief."
Native American poverty
Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born at Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in November 1945. Tahlequah was the capitol of the Cherokee Nation. Her father, Charlie Mankiller, was of Cherokee ancestry and her mother, Irene Mankiller, of Dutch-Irish. She had six brothers and four sisters. Her family had a farm on Mankiller Flats in remote Adair County, where she grew up. The name Mankiller came from an old military title acquired by one of Wilma's ancestors, reflecting the rank of a person responsible for protecting a village.
Mankiller's great-grandfather was among sixteen thousand Native Americans who were forced to relocate as white settlement spread throughout the southeastern United States. They were sent to newly set aside lands for Indians west of the Mississippi River in the late 1830s. The Native Americans affected were primarily members of Indian tribes living in the Southeastern United States referred to by American white society as the Five Civilized Tribes for their pursuit of farming, living in relatively permanent villages, and ownership of slaves. They included the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminoles. The U.S. government abandoned efforts to civilize, or develop, Indian peoples by forcing them to become full-time farmers. Instead, it adopted policies to isolate Indian peoples often through forced removals to new areas.
The 1830 Indian Removal Act led to mass relocations of those surviving Indian peoples still remaining east of the Mississippi River. By the end of 1836 some 6,000 Cherokee had voluntarily moved to the new territory set aside for them in the future state of Oklahoma. However, thousands refused to leave and remained in their traditional homelands of the Southeast. Finally, in March 1838 an American military force of 7,000 soldiers under the command of General Winfield Scott (1786–1866) began rounding up Cherokee in Georgia. From there he moved to Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama. In all some 17,000 Cherokee were taken at gunpoint from their homes, not allowed to pack or take belongings. They were first taken to gathering areas in preparation for the long march to the west. The 1,800-mile, six-month forced march became known as the Trail of Tears. They traveled by boat, foot, and wagon. One-fourth of those who embarked on the long wintertime march died along the way. Many more died after arriving in the newly established Indian Territory that later became the state of Oklahoma. Mankiller's great-grandfather, John Mankiller, survived the ordeal. He was given the family farm in 1907, the year Oklahoma gained statehood, as part of the government settlement for the forced relocation of the Cherokee.
A move to California
After the Mankiller farm suffered two straight years of drought (little to no rain), the family decided in 1956 to accept an offer through the U.S. government Indian relocation program to move to San Francisco and start a new life. Mankiller was ten years old when they moved. Their experience in California proved very difficult. Wilma's father was never able to get stable employment as promised by the program, and they faced very strong prejudice. Even her name attracted taunts in school. A family tragedy occurred in 1960, when one of her brothers died from burns suffered in a home accident in the state of Washington, where he lived and worked as an agricultural laborer.
After graduating from high school, Mankiller enrolled in Skyline Junior College in San Bruno, California, and then switched to San Francisco State College where she attended classes from 1963 to 1965 before leaving without graduating. Mankiller studied sociology and found a job while in school as a social worker. At San Francisco State College she met Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi. They married in November 1963 when she was still just eighteen years of age. They had two daughters in the mid-1960s. In 1971, Mankiller's father died in San Francisco of a kidney disease. The family took him back to Oklahoma to be buried. Mankiller herself would soon suffer the same kidney disease, but would be able to treat it.
The hardships and disappointments Mankiller faced growing up in Oklahoma and San Francisco inspired a social activist spirit. She met other young American Indian activists at San Francisco State who formed an organization known as United Indians of All Tribes. Among other activities and protests, these activists adopted a plan to occupy and reclaim Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay as Indian country. The leader was Richard Oakes (1941–1972), a San Francisco State student and member of the Mohawk tribe. The Alcatraz occupation (see box) inspired not only Mankiller, but a new Indian rights movement called the American Indian Movement (AIM). This movement would join other social movements active at the time such as those centered around civil rights, gay rights, and women's rights. She decided to commit her life to helping American Indian peoples.
Mankiller participated in other demonstrations in the San Francisco area and also served as a volunteer for San Francisco attorney Aubrey Grossman, who defended American Indians in legal cases. She also worked in preschool and adult education programs for the Pit River Tribe in Northern California. During the early 1970s, she gained skills in community organization and program development. Mankiller's time-consuming and emotional commitment to social justice and making a difference eventually strained her marriage. In 1974, she divorced and became a single parent and returned to her ancestral home in Oklahoma in 1976.
A return to Oklahoma
Upon returning to her home, Mankiller found a job as community development director of the Cherokee Nation. She tackled various rural development projects that involved repairing housing for the poor and improving water systems.
Mankiller also resumed her academic studies. She enrolled in the Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities, where she earned a degree in social science in 1977. She then entered graduate school, majoring in community planning at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in 1979. This meant a long commute from her home in Oklahoma. One morning when returning from school, Mankiller was struck in a head-on collision with another car that was passing on a curve. Mankiller was seriously injured and barely survived. The driver of the other car, who died in the crash, was one of her best friends. Mankiller persevered through almost twenty operations to repair the injuries from the accident. Her leg was barely saved from amputation.
Indian Occupation of Alcatraz Island
Cherokee political leader Wilma Mankiller began her fight against ethnic and racial prejudice as a student at San Francisco State University in the late 1960s. In 1969, a group of American Indians from many different tribes, who called themselves United Indians of All Tribes, seized control of Alcatraz Island. They occupied the island for eighteen months. Alcatraz Island, located in the middle of San Francisco Bay, had been used as a U.S. military installation after 1850 and was converted to a federal maximum security prison in 1934. In 1963, the prison operation was closed and it became a historical site. The United Indians claimed that the island should be returned to Indian ownership as it had been prior to 1850. The protest group also wanted to establish a native education and cultural center there. The Indians were finally forcibly removed by federal law enforcement agents, and many were arrested. However, the dramatic occupation inspired the beginning of the American Indian Movement and the social activism of many people like Mankiller. American Indian groups continued using the island for ceremonies into the twenty-first century.
During her long period of recovery, she had time to reflect further on her life, and she deepened her spiritual commitment to helping others. However, other health issues followed in the aftermath of the accident. In 1980, Mankiller came down with myasthenia gravis, a serious condition that involves a deterioration or weakness of muscles.
Eventually Mankiller recovered from her injuries and was able to successfully treat the muscle disease. She resumed work for the Cherokee tribe, trying to improve the educational opportunities and economic conditions not only for the Cherokee Nation but for the region of northeastern Oklahoma in general. Her popularity increased as her programs, including community revitalization projects, brought national attention. Her reputation as an expert in community development became well established.
In 1983, Ross Swimmer, who had been serving as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma since 1975, asked Mankiller to run as his Deputy Chief in the next election. Mankiller accepted the invitation. The tribe consisted of seventy thousand tribal members and controlled approximately 45,000 acres of land in Oklahoma. During her candidacy, she faced considerable gender prejudice in the male-dominated tribal society of the Cherokee. She received repeated threats on her life and had her car tires slashed.
Despite the prejudices Mankiller experienced, she and Swimmer were victorious in the tribal elections. Mankiller took office on August 14, 1983, and served as Deputy Chief for over two years, until Swimmer received an appointment to be head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D. C. Swimmer resigned his position and Mankiller was sworn in as Principal Chief on December 5, 1985. Her gender continued to be an issue at first, as some male tribal members held back support for her new programs. However, she soon won respect by showing her capable leadership skills, and dedication for tribal economic improvement. For example, Mankiller helped Cherokee members establish small businesses through creation of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department and other programs.
A role model for women
Mankiller remarried in October 1986 to longtime friend Charlie Soap. Soap had been the tribal director of economic development before she took the position. In 1987, Mankiller received much satisfaction when she ran for the tribal leadership office on her own and won with 56 percent of the vote. Mankiller had clearly become accepted as a legitimate leader despite old gender prejudices.
Mankiller received many awards for her dedication to improving the lives of American Indians and being at the forefront of American Indian politics as a woman. She had become a role model for American Indian women, and the recognition she achieved reflected that. In 1986 she received the American Leadership Award from Harvard University in 1986 in recognition of her political leadership skills and was inducted into the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame. She received an honorary degree from Yale University in 1990. Four years later, she entered the National Women's Hall of Fame in New York City and the general Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
Health problems returned to plague Mankiller toward the end of the twentieth century. In 1990, she needed a kidney transplant to survive. Her brother Donald provided the kidney. Despite her health condition, she chose to run for another term of office in 1991. She won election once more, this time in a landslide victory that garnered 82 percent of the vote.
In 1993, Mankiller published an autobiography titled Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. The book made the national best-seller list. In the book, she provided a history of the Cherokee people. Mankiller also addressed the modern problems of the Cherokee Nation, including the need for improved opportunities for jobs, education, and healthcare. She identified the need to maintain and reinvigorate elements of Cherokee culture, such as Cherokee language. For that purpose, she established the Institute for Cherokee Literacy.
Retirement from tribal office
In August 1995, Mankiller decided not to run for reelection. She departed from her position as Principal Chief largely due to health problems and to pursue other, local issues. In 1998, U.S. president Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) awarded Mankiller a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award given for distinguished service to society. She had clearly become the most popular Cherokee of the twentieth century. The population of the Cherokee increased from 55,000 to 156,000 during her tenure as leader. The tribe had around 1,200 employees and an annual budget over $75 million.
Mankiller remained active into the twenty-first century as an inspiration for others. In 2004, she published the book Every Day is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women. Female activist Gloria Steinem (1934–; see entry), who was married at Mankiller's home, wrote a foreword for the publication.
For More Information
Birchfield, D.L. The Trail of Tears. Milwaukee, WI: World Almanac Library, 2004.
DeCapua, Sarah. The Cherokee. New York: Benchmark Books/Marshall Cavendish, 2006.
Dell, Pamela. Wilma Mankiller: Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books, 2006.
Elish, Dan. The Trail of Tears: The Story of the Cherokee Removal. New York: Benchmark Books/Marshall Cavendish, 2002.
Kucharczyk, Emily Rose. Wilma Mankiller: Native American Leader. Detroit, MI: Blackbirch Press, 2002.
Mankiller, Wilma. Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.
Mankiller, Wilma. Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Pub., 2004.
Salas, Laura Purdie. The Trail of Tears, 1838. Mankato, MN: Bridgestone Books, 2003.
American Indian Movement. http://www.aimovement.org/ (accessed on December 11, 2006).
National Congress of American Indians. http://www.ncai.org/ (accessed on December 11, 2006).
"Wilma Mankiller Former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation." http://www.powersource.com/gallery/people/wilma.html (accessed on December 11, 2006).
Mankiller, Wilma 1945-
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. Mankiller’s 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 father’s 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 Nation’s 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. Mankiller’s 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
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. Martin’s.
Mankiller, Wilma, Gwendolyn Mink, Marysa Navarro, Barbra Smith, and Gloria Steinem, eds. 1998. The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Steven M. Frenk
Vasilios T. Bournas
Wayne Luther Thompson
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.
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. □
Born: November 18, 1945
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.
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 (1767–1845) 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."
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 (1942–1972), 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 received—not 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.