Wilma Mankiller: Taking Care of Her People

Credit: US Dept. of State

Credit: US Dept. of State

On December 14, 1985, Wilma Mankiller was sworn in as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, becoming the first woman in modern history to lead a major Native American tribe. 

Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born in 1945. She was one of 11 children. The Mankillers lived on Mankiller Flats in Adair County, Oklahoma, until her family was relocated by the federal government to San Francisco. While many of us have heard of the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee continually lost land and were forcibly moved well into the 20th century.

Her father was Cherokee and her mother was European, from Dutch and Irish immigrants. The ethnic identities of her parents would have affected Mankiller’s position, both in Cherokee society and in the eyes of federal and state governments.

Mankiller’s social consciousness developed during her late teens in California. While married, going to school, and raising children, she worked for native rights, eventually joining the Alcatraz occupation. From 1969 to 1971 a group of protesters occupied Alcatraz Island and declared they were reclaiming it for all American Indians. The protests at Alcatraz had begun in 1964, but the period from 1969-1971 saw continuous occupation until the federal government removed the protesters.

Mankiller’s husband was an Ecuadorian who seems to have had rather conservative ideas about the roles of wife and husband. In her biography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, Mankiller admits that she married him primarily to help with difficulties that were going on in her life and not out of any great romance. After her divorce, Mankiller returned with her two daughters to live in Oklahoma in 1977, where she worked with the Tribe as program developer and tribal planner.


Studies today report that prior to the 18th Century, Cherokee society was balanced, with men and women in different but equally valued spheres of life, each sphere having economic and political power and with family organized into matrilineal clans. By the time that Principal Chief Ross Swimmer asked Mankiller to be his Deputy Chief for the 1983 election, though, European patriarchy had greatly affected Cherokee society. Their opponents targeted their campaign with sexist and ethnocentric vitriol. Yet she was elected Principal Chief in her own right in 1987 and was reelected in 1991, continuing in that leadership position until 1995, when she retired from office due to health concerns. [mankiller-autobio image here]

One of her first and most controversial acts as Principal Chief may be directly related to her parents’ being a “mixed” couple. Mankiller worked to open up the official rolls of Cherokee. Explaining her position that more people needed to be recognized as part of the Cherokee Nation, she said “An Indian is an Indian regardless of the degree of Indian blood or which little government card they do or do not possess.” Her words are still controversial today within Cherokee society.

Today Mankiller is recognized for her work in developing rural areas and focusing on improving services for the Cherokee people. During her tenure as Principal Chief, employment for Cherokee doubled, several building programs were started and completed, infant morality rates dropped, and educational achievement rose.

Clinton + Mankiller.jpg

In 1998, President Clinton honored Mankiller with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Clinton pointed out that Mankiller “was not only the guardian of the centuries-old Cherokee heritage but a revered leader who built a brighter and healthier future for her nation.” He also noted that in her last election, Mankiller had received 83% of the vote, something that neither he nor any of his fellow United States Presidents have ever come close to achieving. 

Mankiller’s legacy lives on in the work of the Wilma Mankiller Foundation. The Foundation “works with indigenous communities … to support and promote culturally appropriate media and community development.” Their works have ranged from community education and civic projects to assisting business development and mass media productions.

Did Mankiller see herself as a feminist? She did remark that many feminists would love her surname, but it was a family name, reflecting a legacy of military prowess. She was on the board of the Ms. Foundation for Women, which is a feminist organization but she also helped lead several other social and philanthropic groups that are not feminist. Gloria Steinem was a close friend and considered Mankiller to be an ally and a feminist icon.

Mankiller may be best defined using her own words: “One of the things my parents taught me, and I'll always be grateful as a gift, is to not ever let anybody else define me; that for me to define myself … and I think that helped me a lot in assuming a leadership position.” (Wilma Mankiller, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People) This attitude would be helpful for many of us today.