Born this day in 1945: Wilma Mankiller (1945–2010), first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation (1985–1995)
Wilma Mankiller spent her early years in Oklahoma, where her family had been forcibly relocated via the Trail of Tears. When she was 12, her father moved the family to San Francisco as part of another sort of relocation program offered by the U.S. government. The promised economic opportunities never arose, and Mankiller felt bereft of her former Cherokee community.
As a young wife and mother, Mankiller chafed under the confines of a repressive marriage. She longed to be involved in community work. She also took great inspiration from the Native American occupation of Alctraz in 1969. She attended college, studying social work and doing postgraduate work in community planning. She divorced her husband and returned to Oklahoma. Once there she reclaimed Mankiller Flats, land that had been part of a settlement to her grandfather after the forced relocation of the Cherokee.
Mankiller set to work to raising her people out of poverty. In 1981 she established the Community Development Department of the Cherokee Nation. In 1983 she became the first woman deputy chief of the Cherokee nation. In 1985 she took over as principal chief, and in 1987 she was elected principal chief, the first woman to be chief of the Cherokee nation or any major Native American nation. She won re-election in 1991, but did did not seek re-election in 1995. Mankiller faced much opposition due to her gender when she first became deputy chief. By the time she left office on 1995, however, she felt that most opposition came from people who disagreed with her policies, and not from people who opposed women running the Cherokee Nation.
Mankiller worked to improve infrastructure, develop community self-help programs, improve education and healthcare, and foster economic development. She also took steps to preserve Cherokee culture, including founding the Institute for Cherokee Literacy. She saw Cherokee values as the path to Cherokee development.
Cherokee traditional identity is tied to both an individual and collective determination to follow a good path, be responsible and loving, and help one another—or as some Cherokee traditionalists say, “Not let go of one another.” The whole self-help concept of community development and the founding of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department was based on the simple premise that when given the resources and opportunity, tradition-oriented Cherokee people will help each other and take on projects for the larger community good. Gadugi, or working collectively for the common good, is an abiding attribute of Cherokee culture.
—Wilma Mankiller, Every Day is a Good Day (2004)
Mankiller was a prominent feminist and took a special interest in improving the lives of women. “Mankiller,” lest you get any ideas, is a name she inherited. It is a term of honor bestowed upon great warriors and one that had been in her family for generations. Without a doubt, however, she lived up to its expectations.
Mankiller was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.
To get a glimpse of Mankiller’s community work, read this passage from Gloria Steinem’s Revolution from Within.
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