Wilma Mankiller Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: By becoming the first woman to be the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, or of any major American Indian tribe, Wilma Mankiller renewed a long tradition of female leadership in Cherokee affairs.

Early Life

Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born on November 18, 1945, in the W. W. Hastings Indian Hospital in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Her father, Charley Mankiller, a full-blooded Cherokee, married her mother, Clara Irene Sitton, of Dutch-Irish descent, in 1937. Wilma was the sixth of their eleven children. The family lived on Mankiller Flats in Adair County, northeastern Oklahoma. Mankiller Flats was an allotment of 160 acres that had been given to John Mankiller, Charley’s father, in 1907, when Oklahoma became a state. The name “Mankiller” was the Cherokee military title of Wilma’s great-great-great grandfather, Mankiller of Tellico, in the eighteenth century. Tellico, in eastern Tennessee, was part of the original Cherokee Nation. The Mankillers and most other Cherokee were forcibly moved to the Indian Territory, later the state of Oklahoma, on the infamous Trail of Tears in 1838 and 1839.

The first eleven years of Wilma’s life were spent on Mankiller Flats and in traditional Cherokee culture. In 1956, however, the Mankiller family moved to San Francisco, California, as part of a government relocation plan to move American Indians to large cities and into mainstream American life. Life in San Francisco was a culture shock, especially for the Mankiller children, but they soon adjusted to their new life.

On November 13, 1963, Wilma Mankiller was married to Hugo Olaya, a member of a wealthy Ecuadorian family, who was then a student in San Francisco. Two daughters, Felicia and Gina, were born to the couple before differences in lifestyles led to a divorce in 1975. During the years of her first marriage, Wilma earned a degree from San Francisco State College.

Wilma’s Cherokee background was revived, and her activist work was initiated, in 1969, when a group of American Indians occupied Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay, to gain support for American Indian rights. Wilma and many others in her family participated in that occupation.

Charley Mankiller, who had become a longshoreman and a union organizer in California, died in 1971. His body was returned to his native Adair County, Oklahoma, for burial. That burial seemed to be a signal for the Mankillers to return, one by one, to Oklahoma. Wilma returned after her divorce in 1975. Only two older brothers remained in California.

After living in two worlds, Wilma Mankiller was able to emulate Nancy Ward, an eighteenth century Cherokee woman who had also lived in both worlds. Like Ward, Wilma was able to combine the best of Cherokee tradition with the best of European-American civilization. Her balanced philosophy enabled Wilma to contribute greatly to the welfare of the Cherokee Nation.

Life’s Work

Wilma Mankiller began her work to improve American Indian life before she left California. In 1974, with Bill Wahpapah, she cofounded the American Indian Community School in Oakland. Her return to Oklahoma in 1975, however, marked the beginning of her full-time service to the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee Nation, with 55,000 acres of northeastern Oklahoma and a population of about 67,000 people, ranks second only to the Navajo in size among American Indian tribes in the United States. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the traditional tribal government of the Cherokee was dissolved. This created a unique political organization, neither a reservation nor an autonomous government, with unique political and social problems. Wilma Mankiller now began directing her energy toward solving those problems.

Wilma’s first regular job with the Cherokee Nation began in 1977, when she was hired as an economic-stimulus coordinator. Her job was to guide as many people as possible toward university training in such fields as environmental science and health, and then to integrate them back into their communities. Wilma soon became frustrated with the slow-moving male-dominated bureaucracy of the Cherokee Nation.

Before Europeans came to North America, Cherokee women such as Nancy Ward occupied leadership roles in tribal affairs. The title of Beloved Woman was given to those who performed extraordinary service. The first Europeans to contact the Cherokee accused them of having a “petticoat government.” After this contact, the influence of Cherokee women began to decrease. In her autobiography Mankiller: A Chief and Her People (1993), Wilma Mankiller declared her belief that the Trail of Tears in 1838 and 1839, combined with the tremendous strain of relocation in the West, was the final step in the development of a more subservient...

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Wilma Mankiller Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 1950’s, and much of it was directed at Native Americans, the fastest growing minority in the state at that time.

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...

(The entire section is 822 words.)

Wilma Mankiller Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

Schwarz, Melissa. Wilma Mankiller: Principal Chief of the Cherokees. New York: Chelsea House, 1994. A brief biography.