Authors: Wilma Mankiller

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Cherokee chief and community organizer

November 18, 1945

Tahlequah, Oklahoma

April 6, 2010

Adair County, Oklahoma

Biography

As principal chief of the Cherokee nation from 1985 to 1995, Wilma Mankiller served a worldwide population of more than 140,000, controlled an annual budget of more than $75 million, and employed more than 1,200 persons spread across 7,000 square miles. Her duties and range of power were those of a head of state, as well as resembling the responsibilities of the head of a major corporation. The sixth of eleven children, Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born in the Hastings Indian Hospital in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the last stop on the infamous Trail of Tears that had forced the removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands in the South in 1838–1839. Her father, Charley, was a full-blooded Cherokee; her mother, Irene, was of Dutch-Irish descent. Wilma was raised at Mankiller Flats on 160 acres that had been allocated to her grandfather through the Dawes Act of 1887 and that continues to be preserved for future generations of her family.

Although the family was poor when Wilma Mankiller was young, her life was comfortable and centered around the community. Her situation altered drastically, however, when she was ten years old after her parents agreed to a voluntary relocation program designed to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American society. The family moved to the racially mixed neighborhood of Hunters Point in San Francisco, where Wilma felt like an outsider, particularly in school. There was growing racial tension in California during the 1950s, and much of it was directed at Native Americans, the fastest growing minority in the state at that time.

Photo of Wilma Mankiller taken at the 2001 Cherokee National Holiday

ext-link-type="db-image"

xlink:href="cwa-24549810001706-150655.jpg"/>

By Philkon Phil Konstantin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Wilma Mankiller taken at the 2001 Cherokee National Holiday

ext-link-type="db-image"

xlink:href="cwa-24549810001706-150699.jpg"/>

By Philkon Phil Konstantin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

To compensate for her unhappiness at school, Mankiller spent her free time in the San Francisco Indian Center, where she relieved her homesickness and created bonds with other relocated Native American children. When she was seventeen years old she met the Ecuadorian immigrant Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi at the center, and they were married shortly before her eighteenth birthday. Hugo expected her to become a traditional wife and mother to their two daughters, Felicia and Gina, but Mankiller required more challenge in her life.

Despite protests from Hugo, Mankiller enrolled at San Francisco State College to study sociology. Much of her training at that time, however, came not in the classroom but through her observations of the life around her. She became intrigued by the Civil Rights movement and the involvement of the Black Panthers in the fight for freedom, and was impressed by the strategies of women’s rights activists.

The San Francisco of the 1960s was a vital, active city, home to peace-and-love flower children, antiwar activists, and bohemian rebels of all types. At first, Mankiller and her daughters were merely observers. Then in November 1969, a group of Native Americans took over the abandoned prison island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, citing their right to ownership from an old treaty that guaranteed the reversal of any unused government land to the tribe. Mankiller later asserted that her participation in the Alcatraz occupation changed her perceptions forever, not only of her role as a Cherokee but of her role as a woman as well.

Mankiller spent five years as a volunteer with the Pit River Tribe of northern California, working to establish a legal defense fund for the battle to reclaim ancestral lands from the powerful Pacific Gas and Electric Company. This activity further impaired her marriage, and in 1974 she and her husband were divorced.

As a single parent with virtually no income, Mankiller felt the pull of her old homeland more strongly than ever, and she and her daughters returned to Mankiller Flats in Oklahoma. Soon after, she was hired by the Cherokee Nation as economic stimulus coordinator, and she began attending graduate classes in community planning. Eventually she was appointed as principal organizer of a revitalization project for the Bell Community, a grant-funded program to allow the Cherokees to help themselves. In this capacity she came under the close scrutiny of Principal Chief Ross Swimmer, who asked her to run for deputy chief in the next election. Despite strong opposition Mankiller won the position and assumed office in 1983.

When Swimmer was asked to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., in 1985, Mankiller took over the position of principal chief, the first woman ever to head an American Indian nation. She completed Swimmer’s term and, with encouragement from her family and her new husband, Charlie Soap, successfully ran for the office in 1987. She was reelected in 1991 but did not seek reelection for a third term, preferring to give someone new the opportunity for the position. Her official retirement took effect in July, 1995.

In 1993, with the collaboration of Michael Wallis, Mankiller composed Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, a reflective overview of her life and her accomplishments as principal chief. The work is also a comprehensive history of the Cherokee people, written from the perspective of one who was part of that history.

Mankiller died at age sixty-four on April 6, 2010, at her home in Oklahoma.

Author Works Nonfiction: Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, 1993 (with Michael Wallis) A Brief Interview with Chief Wilma Mankiller, 1996 Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women, 2004 Edited Text: The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History, 1998 (with others) Bibliography Debo, Angie. A History of the Indians of the United States. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970. An in-depth historical survey of all the native peoples of North America, analyzing their lifestyles and problems since the first encounters with Europeans. This work, which traces the path from myth to revitalization, has been called the best one-volume history of this subject. Ehle, John. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Presents a readable, stylistically informal source on the Cherokee Nation that parallels Mankiller’s account. Nelson, Andrew. "Wilma Mankiller." Salon, 20 Nov. 2001, http://www.salon.com/2001/11/20/mankiller/. Accessed 28 May 2017. Overview of Mankiller's life through the end of the twentieth century. Schwarz, Melissa. Wilma Mankiller: Principal Chief of the Cherokees. New York: Chelsea House, 1994. A brief biography. Mankiller, Wilma. Interview by John Erling. Voices of Oklahoma, 13 Oct. 2016, http://www.voicesofoklahoma.com/interview/mankiller-wilma/. Accessed 28 May 2017. Audio interview with Mankiller conducted in 2009, less than a year before her death.

Categories: Authors