Mankiller, Wilma (1945—)

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Mankiller, Wilma (1945—)

Native American activist and tribal leader who was the first woman elected as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation . Name variations: Wilma Pearl Mankiller. Born on November 18, 1945, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma; daughter of Charlie Mankiller and Irene Mankiller; attended Skyline Junior College in San Bruno, California, and San Francisco State College; Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities, B.A., 1977; graduate studies at the University of Arkansas, 1979; married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi, in 1962 (divorced 1974); married Charlie Soap, around 1987; children: (first marriage) Felicia (b. 1964); Gina (b. 1966).

Wilma Mankiller was born at the Hastings Indian Hospital in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, on November 18, 1945. Her hometown was the last stop on the infamous Trail of Tears walked by the Cherokee during the forced removal from their southern homelands in 1838. Her father Charlie Mankiller was a full-blooded Cherokee, and her mother Irene Mankiller was of Dutch-Irish heritage; Wilma was the sixth of their eleven children. For her first decade, she lived a poor but comfortable life at Mankiller Flats, the 160-acre property which had been handed down from her grandfather. However, back-to-back droughts decimated the family farm, and when Wilma was ten the Mankillers accepted a government relocation offer and moved to San Francisco in the hopes of improving their economic status.

San Francisco drastically changed Wilma Mankiller's perspective on her Native American heritage. Although she experienced racism as a minority in the public schools, she also met Native Americans who inspired her to think of her goals in life as part of the greater Native community. She attended San Francisco State College during the tumultuous protest years of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and became involved with a group of Native Americans who set about reclaiming Alcatraz Island in 1969, asserting ownership based on an old treaty guaranteeing the reversion of unused government land to the tribe. Further involving herself in community activism, she spent five years establishing a defense fund for the Pit River tribe's battle to reclaim ancestral lands from the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

In 1962, at age 17, Mankiller had married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi, an Ecuadoran immigrant with whom she would have two daughters. He had expected a traditional marriage, and protested her growing involvement in political movements as well as her desire to improve her education. Mankiller's refusal to stop her activities contributed to their divorce in 1974.

As a single parent raising two children on hardly any income, Mankiller moved her family back to Mankiller Flats in 1976. She was hired by the Cherokee Nation and served as community development director from 1977 to 1983, during which time she also completed her undergraduate studies and enrolled in graduate courses at the University of Arkansas. The tribe then appointed her principal organizer of a grantfunded revitalization project. In 1983, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Ross Swimmer, asked her to join him as his deputy chief in the upcoming elections. Mankiller overcame initial opposition from male members of the tribe and won the position.

In 1985, Swimmer left to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., and Mankiller took over as principal chief to complete Swimmer's term. As such, she became the first woman ever to head a Native American nation. With the encouragement of her new husband Charlie Soap, Mankiller ran for this leadership position in the 1987 election. Having proven herself over the previous two years as a capable leader, she easily won, despite the annoyance of some men. In America's early days, "historians referred to our tribal government as a petticoat government because of the strong role of women in the tribe," said Mankiller. "Then we adopted a lot of ugly things that were part of the non-Indian world and one of those things was sexism. … So in 1687 women enjoyed a prominent role, but in 1987 we found people questioning whether women should be in leadership positions anywhere in the tribe." As elected chief, she assessed the primary problems of her nation as high unemployment, poor education and poor health care, and set out to address those issues. Mankiller represented a nation of over 70,000 people, with more than 45,000 acres of land and a yearly budget of over $75 million. During her tenure, the tribe's worldwide membership increased to 156,000, and she added three health centers and nine children's

programs. She retired in 1994, to give others an opportunity to lead the nation.

Mankiller's personal life was marked by tragedy. In 1960, a brother died of burns sustained in a job-related accident. Her father died in 1971, of a kidney disease which would later afflict Wilma and require her to receive a kidney transplant from her brother Donald in 1990. In the mid-1970s, Mankiller was also seriously injured in an automobile accident that killed her best friend, and shortly thereafter was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a muscle disease. Throughout her personal struggles, she maintained a positive outlook on life, preferring to be instrumental in working toward change rather than to complain about disadvantages.

Wilma Mankiller co-authored her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, in 1984; she has also contributed fiction to magazines and authored the foreword to Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother's Wisdom by Marilou Awiakta , published in 1993. Among the awards Mankiller has received are the Donna Nigh First Lady Award from the Oklahoma Commission for the Status of Women (1985), the American Leadership Award from Harvard University (1986), the John W. Gardner Leadership Award (1988), and an honorary degree from Yale University (1990). She was inducted into the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame in 1986, and, in 1994, was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and the Women's Hall of Fame at Seneca Falls.


Contemporary Authors. Vol. 146. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Contemporary Newsmakers 1986. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Magill, Frank N. Cyclopedia of World Authors. 3rd rev. ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1997.

McFadden, Margaret, ed. Women's Issues. Vol. II. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1997.

"Wilma Mankiller," in Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

suggested reading:

Mankiller, Wilma, with Michael Wallis. Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1984.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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