Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Wilma Mankiller at a speaking engagement

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The first woman to lead the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and the tribe's most influential principal chief since John Ross of the nineteenth century, Wilma Mankiller's dedication to her people and their future defines her life of public service and social activism. Among Cherokees and other Native American peoples, Mankiller remains a staunch advocate of Native civil, spiritual, and sovereignty rights, economic independence, women's rights, and education and health reform, all while successfully fighting her own battles with emotional tragedy and personal illness.

Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born at Tahlequah, Oklahoma, on November 18, 1945, to Irene, of Dutch-Irish heritage, and Charlie, a full-blood Cherokee. Material poverty marked her life on the family's allotment tract, known as Mankiller Flats. This poverty would serve as the impetus for her family's move to San Francisco, California, in 1956 as part of the federal government's relocation policies under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). When the bia's promises of financial security proved false, the family turned to the San Francisco Indian Center for cultural and emotional support. Mankiller and her father developed a particularly strong relationship with the center, and she credits her interests in politics to watching Charlie work as an advocate for the Indian community of San Francisco.

In 1963 Mankiller married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi, whom she had met while a student at San Francisco State College, and by 1966 she was the mother of two daughters, Felicia and Gina. Her growing activism for Indian rights was heightened by the Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island; while her siblings joined the protesters on the island itself, Mankiller spent much of her time in fundraising activities for the movement. In 1974, due to fundamental differences in political and personal philosophies, Mankiller and her husband divorced, and in 1977 she returned to Mankiller Flats with her daughters.

Mankiller's work with the Cherokee Nation, as an economic stimulus coordinator, began shortly after her arrival but was interrupted by a near-fatal car accident in 1979, in which her best friend, Sherry Morris, was killed when her vehicle struck Mankiller's car head-on while passing on a blind curve. Mankiller's recovery was compounded by the emotional trauma of Morris's death and the onset of myasthenia gravis, a type of muscular dystrophy in which the immune system attacks skeletal muscles. With help from Cherokee medicine people, surgery, and drug therapy, Mankiller fully recovered and in 1980 continued her work with the Cherokee Nation.

By 1983, after directing a highly successful community revitalization program, Mankiller had developed a strong reputation as an efficient organizer and dedicated advocate of Cherokee people, particularly the poor of the nation. Ross Swimmer, then principal chief, asked her to be his running mate as deputy chief. Swimmer and Mankiller narrowly won the election. In 1985 Swimmer resigned to head the bia in Washington dc, and Mankiller became the first woman principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. She was reelected in a runoff in 1987, and in 1991, a year after repeated hospitalizations and a kidney transplant, she won her second election with 82 percent of the vote.

The move toward tribal revitalization marked Mankiller's tenure as principal chief, during which she focused on Cherokee selfreliance, independence, and pride. She championed a variety of economic, political, educational, and cultural projects, including Cherokee language and literacy classes, rural development and housing construction, health care initiatives, and land claims settlement. Due to continued ill health, including a second kidney operation and treatment for lymphatic cancer, Mankiller declined in 1995 to run for a third term, but she has since remained active in Cherokee affairs and international Indigenous and women's rights. She and her husband, Charlie Soap, a bilingual full-blood Cherokee, are often seen at multitribal cultural and political events; at powwows, Charlie is a noted Plains-style dancer.

Some of the honors Mankiller has received include induction into the International Women's Forum Hall of Fame, the National Women's Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame. She is the recipient of the National Racial Justice award, Ms. magazine's Woman of the Year award, and the Oklahoma Federation of Women's American Indian Woman of the Year award, and she was named in the Marquis Who's Who as one of the fifty great Americans. In 1998 Mankiller received the Medal of Freedom, the top civilian honor given by the U.S. government, from President Bill Clinton in honor of her work for the rights of women and Native peoples throughout the world.

Daniel Heath Justice

University of Toronto

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

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