It’s Women in History Crush Wednesday again! Sorry for posting so late in the evening, I was volunteering all day at the Houston Food Bank, trying to do my bit to give back to my community. Which
loosely ties into the work and motives of this week’s WCW, Wilma Mankiller. Wilma Mankiller was the first female chief of a major Native American tribe (the Cherokee Nation) and a leading force in improving Cherokee health care, education, and governing systems.
Born on November 18th, 1945 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Mankiller is of Cherokee Indian, Dutch, and Irish descent. Her surname, “Mankiller,” is believed to be an old Cherokee title for the person leading and protecting the village. Her family was moved to Oklahoma during the 1930’s Indian-removal policy push referred to as the Trail of Tears. Mankiller was raised near Rocky Mountain, Oklahoma until yet again her family was forced to move in the 1950’s due to the Indian Relocation Act, this time to San Francisco, California. While in California, Mankiller’s family faced discrimination and hardship in obtaining financial stability as they were forced to attempt assimilation. She married, and later divorced, Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi in 1963, and had two daughters, Felicia and Gina. Attending Skyline College, San Francisco State University, and Flaming Rainbow University for her undergraduate years, Mankiller received a degree in social sciences, and did graduate studies at the University of Arkansas. In 1986, she married her activist partner, Charlie Soap.
During the civil rights movements of the 1960’s, Mankiller took part in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island. The spirit and camaraderie of the protest inspired Mankiller to move back to Oklahoma to help the people of her tribe. She began working for the Cherokee government as a tribal planner and program developer, and had big plans for improving the lives of her tribe.
But in 1979, tragedy struck; Mankiller was severely injured in a head-on car collision. She endured seventeen surgeries in order to mend her crushed legs, chest, and face, and then had to recover from the emotional blow that was the news that the other driver was her friend, and that she had died. Thinking back, Mankiller has said that the accident and her healing process acted as a spiritual awakening for her, and also inspired her determination in helping her tribe. After the long recovery, Mankiller was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, which she was able to overcome. Throughout her life time, Mankiller would battle myasthenia gravis, breast cancer, dialysis followed by kidney transplants, lymphoma, and finally, terminal pancreatic cancer.
In 1983, Mankiller ran for deputy chief alongside Ross Swimmer. Her candidacy was opposed by many misogynists, who would slash her tires and send her death threats. Despite these shows of dislike, Mankiller won and served the Cherokee Nation as deputy chief for two years, until Swimmer stepped down as chief and she finished out his term in the position. In doing so, Mankiller became the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation in recorded history, and a role model to tribeswomen and girls.
“Prior to my election, young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up and become chief.”
Mankiller ran for chief again in 1987 and 1991, winning both. While in office, Mankiller led many community projects, including the continuation of her earlier Bell Water Project, establishing tribally owned businesses, obtaining tribal land grants, and mending federal-tribal communications. Under her administration, the Cherokee Nation tripled in population size, making it the second largest tribe in the United States.
While she didn’t seek reelection in 1995 due to poor health, Mankiller continued to speak across America on behalf of all women and Native Americans. She published two books; Mankiller: A Chief and Her People and Every Day is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women. Former President Bill Clinton awarded Mankiller the Medal of Freedom in 1998 for her diplomacy as the leader of a foreign nation.
Mankiller continued her work as an activist until her death on April 6th, 2010, and is remembered today for her strong spirituality and belief in the interconnectedness of all things, and for her tremendous leadership.
Wilma Mankiller is a huge role model for me, as she faced discrimination and opposition but was a wildly successful female leader who was able to better the lives of those around her. She knew what she wanted for the future of her people, and did everything in her power to make those things so, all the while guided by her faith in living things. I hope to be as passionate about working for solutions to societal problems as she was.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more Women in History Crush Wednesdays! Be heard!