Wilma Mankiller was the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Indian Nation and was an inspiration not only to the Native American Nations but to women everywhere. Born in 1945 on November 18 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and for many years, lived on the allotted lands that her grandfather was able to own. However, she and her family soon faced their own “Trail of Tears” as the U.S. government took her grandfather’s land and moved them to San Francisco with a lot of empty promises that the government never fulfilled.
However, the Native American spirit endured in her and her family and did not allow the false promises of the government to dissuade them. Wilma Mankiller went on to finish high school and then took a job as a clerk. In 1963, she married a man named Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi and they had two daughters. Wilma Mankiller settled into life as a wife and mother. That all changed in 1969. In 1969, a Native American from the Mohawk tribe, Richard Oakes led the way for him and other Native Americans from various tribes took over the abandoned prison at Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay as to call to attention the mistreatment of the Native Americans by the U.S. Government. Mankiller joined them on Alcatraz.
Alcatraz awakened something in Wilma Mankiller as she decided that she wanted to help the Native American people. She began taking courses at a community college and from there she went on to San Francisco State. As she became more active in school and even more active in her community, her marriage began to suffer and in 1974, her and her husband finally divorced. Wilma Mankiller suffered many personal tragedies in the 1970’s. Her father died from kidney disease and she went with the family to bury him in Oklahoma. When she returned to California, she soon suffered from the same kidney disease that took her father but it was discovered early enough to be treated but would eventually need a transplant and she would receive one from her brother.
Then in 1976, she moved back to Oklahoma to become more active with the Cherokee tribe there as a tribal planner and program developer. She would then be involved in an automobile accident that nearly took her life and she would have many surgeries as part of her recovery process. After she had fully recovered from that physically, Wilma would go on to battle a neuromuscular disease known as myasthenia gravis. She would beat it and then overcome another obstacle in 1983.
That obstacle would be as deputy chief of the Cherokee tribe. She won although she was threatened with death and the tires on her car would be slashed. Two years later, Wilma Mankiller made history as becoming the first woman principal chief for the Cherokee nation. She also served two full terms as chief winning elections in 1987 and then again in 1991. Wilma Mankiller was a very popular leader and while she served as chief, she sought to change the healthcare system, the government and the educational system. She stepped down from the position in 1995 due to healthcare reasons.
Her leaving office did not stop Wilma Mankiller from being an activist for women’s’ rights and Native American rights. Wilma Mankiller led her people through very trying times for more than two decades and received numerous awards and accolades for her work. In 1998, she received the highest award that a civilian could receive when then President Bill Clinton awarded her the Medal of Freedom. Wilma Mankiller died this past week on April 6, 2010 due to complications from pancreatic cancer. However, she left behind two daughters, a second husband named Charlie Soap, whom she married in 1986 and a legacy that may never be matched. Wilma Mankiller is definitely an inspiration to women everywhere, Native American or not.