Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller (born 1945) became active in Native American causes in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s and gained skills in community organization and program development. With 56 percent of the vote, Mankiller became the first woman elected Cherokee principal chief in the historic Cherokee election of 1987.

Wilma Pearl Mankiller is both the first woman Deputy Chief and first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She overcame many personal tragedies and returned home to Mankiller Flats, Oklahoma, to establish herself as a political power working for the betterment of all people. Mankiller was born at Tahlequah, the capitol of the Cherokee Nation, in November 1945, and was raised until she was ten years old at Mankiller Flats. Her father was Charlie Mankiller, Cherokee, and her mother was Irene Mankiller, Dutch-Irish. She had four sisters and six brothers.

Trail of Tears

Mankiller's great-grandfather was one of the over 16,000 Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and African slaves who struggled along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma during the removal period, when Andrew Jackson was President in the 1830s. According to Carl Waldman in Atlas of the North American Indian, their journey was one of much pain and death: "At least a quarter of the Indians died before even reaching the Indian Territory. And many more died afterward, as they struggled to build new lives in the rugged terrain, with meager supplies and surrounded by hostile western Indians."

The Mankillers were very poor in Oklahoma, their ancestors being deposited there in 1838 and 1839, and it was difficult for Mankiller's father to maintain his family with any semblance of dignity. Although they did not want to move to California, Charlie Mankiller thought he could make a better life there for them and accepted a government offer to relocate. However, program promises faltered, money did not arrive, and there was often no employment available, so their life did not improve after their arrival in San Francisco.

The children were homesick even before they started for California. As Mankiller recalled in her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People,"I experienced my own Trail of Tears when I was a young girl. No one pointed a gun at me or at members of my family. No show of force was used. It was not necessary. Nevertheless, the United States government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was again trying to settle the 'Indian problem' by removal. I learned through this ordeal about the fear and anguish that occur when you give up your home, your community, and everything you have ever known to move far away to a strange place. I cried for days, not unlike the children who had stumbled down the Trail of Tears so many years before. I wept tears that came from deep within the Cherokee part of me. They were tears from my history, from my tribe's past. They were Cherokee tears."

In California, cringing at the snickering that always followed the school roll call when the teacher said "Mankiller," she nevertheless finished high school and pursued higher education. In the 1960s she attended Skyline Junior College in San Bruno then San Francisco State College. At San Francisco State she met and married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi. In 1964 they had a daughter, Felicia, and in 1966 another, Gina. In college, Mankiller was introduced to some of the Native Americans who would soon occupy and reclaim Alcatraz Island for the Native American people.

Alcatraz Occupation Fuels Political Awakening

The "invasion" of Alcatraz by the Native Americans quickly became a focal point for many Native people, Mankiller included. Because of the bold move onto Alcatraz by San Francisco State student and Mohawk Richard Oakes, along with his "All Tribes" group, Mankiller realized that her mission in life was to serve her people. She yearned for independence, something that caused a conflict with her marriage. "Once I began to become more independent, more active with school and in the community, it became increasingly difficult to keep my marriage together. Before that, Hugo had viewed me as someone he had rescued from a very bad life," she noted in her autobiography. In 1974 she was divorced and became a single head of the household. Mankiller longed to do more for her people. Soon she was volunteering to work for attorney Aubrey Grossman of San Francisco, who was defending the Pit River people against charges from Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

There were many political and social movements across America during the 1960s. To many Native people across America, however, the defiant occupation of Alcatraz in a challenge of treaty rights, which led to the arrest of many people, ushered in a new and real feeling of self-determination. "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. Alcatraz articulated my own feelings about being an Indian," Mankiller stated in her autobiography. She became involved in the movement and began a commitment to serve the Native people to the best of her ability in the area of law and legal defense.

Endures Personal Tragedies and Health Problems

In 1971, Mankiller's father died from a kidney disease in San Francisco, which she said "tore through my spirit like a blade of lightning." The family took Charlie Mankiller home to Oklahoma for burial, then Mankiller returned to California. It was not long before she too had kidney problems, inherited from her father. Her early kidney problems could be treated, though later she had to have surgery and eventually, in 1990, she had to have a transplant. Her brother Donald became her "hero" by donating one of his kidneys so that she could live.

In 1960, Mankiller's brother Bob was badly burned in a fire. Not wanting to be an added burden to the survival of the family, he had traveled north and was picking apples in Washington State. In the chill of early morning, he made a mistake by starting a fire with gasoline instead of kerosene, and his wooden shack exploded in flames. Bob survived for only six days. He was Mankiller's role model for a "care free" spirit.

In 1976, Mankiller returned to Oklahoma for good and found time to pursue higher education. She enrolled in graduate courses at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, which required her to drive the distance daily. She was returning home one morning when an automobile approached her on a blind curve and, from seemingly nowhere, another automobile attempted to pass it. She swerved to miss the approaching automobile, but failed. The vehicles hurtled together, almost head on.

Mankiller was seriously injured, and many thought she would not survive. The driver of the other automobile did not. It turned out to be Sherry Morris, Mankiller's best friend. It was terribly difficult, both physically and emotionally, but Mankiller recovered. Shortly after this accident, she came down with myasthenia gravis, a muscle disease. Again her life was threatened, but her will to live and her determination to mend her body with the power of her mind prevailed.

Becomes Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

In 1983, Ross Swimmer, then Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, asked Mankiller to be his Deputy Chief in the election. She accepted, and they won the election and took office on August 14, 1983. On December 5, 1985, Swimmer was nominated to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., and Mankiller was sworn in as Principal Chief.

Mankiller overcame many tragedies to become a guiding power for the Cherokee people of Oklahoma and a symbol of achievement for women everywhere. Yet through all the trying times, she worried for all people everywhere and planned for their happiness. She herself found love and strength in Charlie Soap. She gives him much credit for her successes and her will to overcome the many obstacles that threatened her political and physical life after her return to Oklahoma.

Throughout her life, Mankiller has managed to not complain about how bad things are for herself, for her people, and for Native people in general, but instead to help make life better. Fittingly, she was inducted into the Woman's Hall of Fame in New York City in 1994.

Further Reading on Wilma Mankiller

Mankiller, Wilma, and Michael Wallis, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Waldman, Carl, Atlas of the North American Indian, New York, Facts on File, 1985.