Wilma Mankiller, the Inspiring First Woman Cherokee Chief

November 20, 2013


Mankiller graces the cover of the Spring 1993 “AAUW Outlook.” AAUW Archives

Mankiller graces the cover of the Spring 1993 “AAUW Outlook.” AAUW Archives

In 1993, AAUW gave our highest honor, the Achievement Award, to Wilma Mankiller. Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, was recognized for her contributions toward improving the lives of the Cherokee people.

Mankiller was born November 18, 1945, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Her family was moved to San Francisco as part of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ program designed to relocate and urbanize Native Americans. This was quite a transition in her life, as she went from living without running water in rural Oklahoma to living in a major American city. In 1967, Mankiller participated in a protest with Native American activists who took over the vacant prison at Alcatraz Island. While in California, she also married, had two daughters, and began attending college classes, but eventually returned to her native Oklahoma.

In Oklahoma, Mankiller became involved with the government of the Cherokee Nation, beginning as director of community development. She rose through the ranks, and in 1983 she was chosen by Principal Chief Ross Swimmer to serve as deputy chief. When Swimmer left mid-term to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., Mankiller took over as principal chief. She was the first woman ever to hold the position. She won the principal chief election in 1987 and was reelected for a second term in 1991 by a landslide margin of 85 percent. Her term ended in 1995.

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During her tenure, Mankiller worked to improve the lives of the Cherokee people. She created a job center, increased the number of tribal health clinics, and brought jobs and businesses to the Cherokee jurisdiction. Summer programs for young people and adult literacy were added. At this point, Mankiller was visible on the national scene; then-President Bill Clinton appointed her to be an adviser to the federal government on tribal affairs. Later, Clinton would grant her the 1998 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

1)Letter from Wilma Mankiller to AAUW, November 27, 1991. AAUW Archives

Letter from Wilma Mankiller to AAUW, November 27, 1991. AAUW Archives

Mankiller was also named an AAUW Woman of Distinction at the 1990 National Conference for College Women Student Leaders. But awards aren’t her only connection with AAUW. The AAUW Tahlequah (OK) Branch and Susan Frusher received a 1991–92 Community Action Grant to establish a mentoring program for girls at Sequoyah High School, a boarding school for Native American children. Girls were matched with career mentors whom they then shadowed throughout the program. Mankiller assisted in the process of locating Cherokee mentors for the girls. Designed to bolster self-confidence and opportunities for Native American girls, the program was a success. In a letter found in AAUW’s archives, Mankiller expresses her thanks to AAUW for funding the successful mentoring project.

I am saddened to read of the many difficulties Wilma Mankiller faced throughout her life, including life-threatening illnesses, accidents, and opposition from the same Cherokee people who would come to adore her. But her ability to overcome these obstacles is inspirational to all. She passed away in 2010 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. In the spring 1993 issue of the AAUW Journal, Mankiller spoke about herself as a role model: “Suddenly you hear young Cherokee girls talking about becoming leaders. And in Cherokee families, [now] there is more encouragement of girls.” Mankiller might have been the first female chief of a major tribe, but she certainly was not the last.

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