After a childhood in rural Oklahoma and a youthful period in the San Francisco area, Wilma Pearl Mankiller became the first woman to lead a major Indian nation in the United States.
Mankiller was born in Rocky Mountain, Oklahoma, on November 18, 1945, a daughter of a Cherokee father and a Dutch-Irish mother, one of eleven children. After spending her early years close to her people, at the age of eleven she and her family moved to San Francisco as a part of the relocation program implemented by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Mankiller had a difficult time adjusting to Hunter's Point, the impoverished, predominantly African American neighborhood in which her family lived. Having completed her high school education, she began to create opportunities to work for the good of Indian people. When the issue of American Indian civil rights began to gain the national spotlight in the late 1960s, Mankiller's position in the Bay Area enabled her to play a vital role in the Red Power Movement. After marrying an Ecuadorian, Hugo Olaya, and having two children, she became director of the American Indian Youth Center in East Oakland, California. Although caring for her family kept her from being present on Alcatraz Island herself when American Indian activists occupied the former federal prison in 1969, Mankiller raised money to support the protestors and visited them on Alcatraz.
Mankiller and Olaya divorced in 1977, the same year she completed her bachelor of arts at Union College. Mankiller then returned to Oklahoma, continuing her career of advocacy by addressing two of the most relevant issues to reservation communities: water and housing. At the same time, she did graduate work, earning her master's degree in community planning at the University of Arkansas in 1979. She worked for the Cherokee Nation as an economic stimulus coordinator and became the tribe's program development specialist in 1979. However, an automobile accident that year left Mankiller seriously injured and hospitalized for a lengthy period. Her health problems were compounded when she was diagnosed with systemic myasthenia gravis, a glandular autoimmune disorder requiring surgery and extending her period of recuperation. Despite her health problems, she was able to return to active political life, founding and directing the Cherokee Community Development Department in 1981.
Mankiller's activities as an advocate for treaty rights and better services earned notice. She moved into the political structure of the Cherokee Nation during 1983 when the principal chief of the nation, Ross O. Swimmer, asked her to be his running mate. Despite receiving hate mail and death threats because of her gender, she became the first woman elected deputy principal chief. After Swimmer resigned to become head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in December 1985, Mankiller was appointed to serve out the two years remaining in his term. Once in charge of the more than 100,000-member Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Mankiller concentrated on the most vital issues facing her people: unemployment, education, health care, and economic development. Her successes made her very popular with her constituents, and she became the first woman elected to lead the Cherokee Nation in 1987, when she was voted to the position of principal chief, capturing more than 80 percent of the vote. Despite continued health problems requiring a kidney transplant, she was reelected in 1991 and served as the leader of the Cherokee Nation until the end of her second term in 1995, choosing not to run for reelection due to persistent health concerns.
Even after Mankiller stepped down from her role as head of the Cherokee Nation, she continued being politically active. She continues to live in the capital of the Cherokee Nation, Tahlequah, Oklahoma, with her Cherokee second husband, Charlie Soap. Over her career, she has received numerous honors, including a special White House ceremony at the end of her term as principal chief, a Humanitarian Award from the Ford Foundation, induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993, and the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1998. In addition, she has published two books: her best-selling 1993 autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, and Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections of Contemporary Indigenous Women (2004).
Steven L. Danver
Champagne, Duane, ed. 1994. Native America: Portrait of the Peoples. Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press.; Mankiller, Wilma, and Michael Wallis. 1993. Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. New York: St. Martin's Press.; Mankiller, Wilma. 2004. Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections of Contemporary Indigenous Women. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.