Wilma Mankiller, first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, was an activist from birth. “In order to understand how I operate, it is necessary to understand that I came from an activist family,” she said (Tyler). From her early involvement in the Black Panther Party and an interest in the reclaiming of Alcatraz Island to her numerous contributions as chief, Mankiller sought to serve her entire life (Pratt).
Born in 1945, Mankiller spent the first eleven years of her life in her family’s rural ancestral home of Oklahoma (Tyler). But in 1956, her family was uprooted and moved to San Francisco as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Relocation Program. This program saw 750,000 other Native Americans relocated from their traditional homes on reserves to urban areas in the subsequent decades (Pratt). While this program aimed to better integrate Indigenous peoples into urban American society, the reality was that many of these migrants faced severe racial discrimination and were isolated from the communities that had offered them inclusion and protection (“American Indian Urban Relocation”). Mankiller was one of eleven children, and her family struggled to stay afloat in their new home (Tyler).
Mankiller first married at the age of eighteen (Tyler). The couple had two daughters, but six years into their marriage, something happened that changed Mankiller’s outlook on her life. Native American student activists had been working to reclaim Alcatraz Island as native land and in 1969, they finally succeeded in gaining control of the deserted island and occupied it for eighteen months (Andrews). This moment was a turning point for Mankiller -- “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,” she said (Tyler). After that, she became more involved and driven to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples.
In 1977, Mankiller divorced her first husband and moved with her daughters back to Oklahoma (Tyler). In the following few years, Mankiller suffered serious health problems, first from a car accident in which her best friend died, and then from a chronic neuromuscular disease, myasthenia gravis, which made it unable for her to speak or feed herself (Tyler). Mankiller made it through these struggles, crediting her good spirits to the Cherokee vision of “being of good mind,” which enabled her to think positively about the future (Tyler). Mankiller saw this time in her life as an opportunity to reflect on how precious life is, and has said without these setbacks, she would not have had the strength to tackle her projects later in life (Tyler).
Having recovered from these health difficulties, Mankiller set her sights on helping the community of Bell, Oklahoma (Tyler). Bell was a small town, mostly populated by Indigenous people who only spoke Cherokee. Many of the homes were rundown and there was no running water. Using federal grants and individual donations, Mankiller managed to organize a community project that managed to construct an eighteen mile long water system, earning her Woman of the Year from Ms Magazine in 1987 (Tyler). Mankiller married again, and in 1983 she became deputy principal chief of the Cherokee Nation (Tyler). In 1985 the current Principal Chief stepped down and Mankiller became the first female Principal Chief. In 1987 she began campaigning for reelection (“Wilma Mankiller”). This move put her and her family in danger, as many did not think it was right for a woman to be Principal Chief (“Wilma Mankiller”). However Mankiller maintained that within the Cherokee Nation women had always played an important and respected role. She argued that it was the ideas of settlers that disrupted a balance between men and women in the Cherokee Nation, and that she wished to restore that balance and reteach Indigenous ideas on gender to future generations (Tyler). Many Indigenous feminist writers have posited that the very idea that Indigenous rights must be addressed before women’s rights comes from a colonial framework. According to Native American poet, Paula Allen Gunn, “many Native American tribes were matriarchal, recognized more than two genders, recognized “third” gendering and homosexuality positively,” therefore any discontent with having a female Principal Chief would come from colonial beliefs and not Indigenous ones (Lugones).
Mankiller remained chief until 1995 (Pratt). Mankiller was greatly successful in office, focusing on education, employment and health care (Tyler). During her ten years in office, her tribe’s enrollment tripled, employment rates doubled, educational achievement rose, and infant mortality declined (Pratt). Even after she left office, Mankiller continued to advocate for Native American and women’s rights (“Wilma Mankiller”). In 1998 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom (Tyler). However many awards she won, Mankiller remained humble to the end of her days, saying “I hope that when I leave, it will just be said: I did what I could” (Pratt).
“American Indian Urban Relocation.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, 15 Aug. 2016, www.archives.gov/education/lessons/indian-relocation.html.
Andrews, Evan. “Native American Activists Occupy Alcatraz Island, 45 Years Ago.” HISTORY. Accessed January 25, 2020. https://www.history.com/news/native-american-activists-occupy-alcatraz-island-45-years-ago.
Biography. “Wilma Mankiller.” Accessed January 25, 2020. https://www.biography.com/activist/wilma-mankiller.
Carrillo, Sequoia. “Just Doing.” Accessed January 28, 2020. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/blogs/national-museum-american-indian/2017/08/11/just-doing-what-i-could-wilma-mankiller-changed-native-america/.
Lugones, María. “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System.” Hypatia, vol. 22, no. 1, 2007, pp. 186–219., doi:10.1111/j.1527-2001.2007.tb01156.x.
Pratt, Stacy. “10 Native Women You Should Have Learned about in History Class.” HelloGiggles, 20 Mar. 2019, hellogiggles.com/lifestyle/native-women-learned-history-class/.
Tyler, Ray. “Wilma Mankiller.” National Women's History Museum, 16 Aug. 2018, www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/wilma-mankiller.