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.
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.
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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