Nov. 18, 1945 (Oklahoma) – April 6, 2010 (Oklahoma)
The Cherokee’s, the largest tribe of Native American’s, originated in Georgia, South Carolina, Virgina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Upon the finding of gold on their Georgia territory in 1828, the tribe was made to leave their ancestral lands. Though the Supreme Court of the day ruled in their favor, President Andrew Jackson, with military assistance, forced the Cherokee men, women, and children to walk one thousand miles in the midst of winter to Oklahoma on, what has been since named, the Trail of Tears. The tribe lost over four-thousand members on the journey.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the tribe’s Oklahoma land was further divided from one territory into individual allotments given only to Cherokee families listed on the 1896-1906 census reports. It was on one of these allotments that Wilma Mankiller was born and raised. The family was considerably not well-off and struggled just to survive. During World War II, the Mankiller family, along with many other Cherokee families, were given great incentives (and perhaps, many false promises of a better life) to leave Oklahoma for San Francisco for the expansion of Fort Gruber.
At age 17, Wilma and family left Oklahoma for 1960’s San Francisco, finding the city to be foreign, isolating and life to be at least as hard, if not harder, than on their family land. A year later, she was married and within the next two years, had given birth to two daughters. During her time in San Francisco, she gained both undergraduate and master’s degrees. Inspired by the work of Bay Area tribes and following her divorce in 1977, Wilma and her daughters moved back to the Mankiller ancestral home, becoming active in the Cherokee Nation governance.
Climbing the ladder from the entry level, Wilma worked her way to becoming the tribe’s first-ever female chief, serving as such from 1985 – 1995. During her time as Chief, she created the Cherokee National Community Development Department, encouraged tribally owned businesses, revived the Sequoyah High School, improved infrastructure, and oversaw the construction of a hydroelectric facility. Owing to health reasons, she did not seek re-election post-1995, though then served as a guest professor at Dartmouth College.
President Bill Clinton, in 1998, awarded Ms. Mankiller the Presidential Metal of Freedom for her visionary work to the betterment of America. Upon her death in 2010, President Obama spoke to the occasion saying, (she) “served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America.,” and that Her legacy will continue to encourage and motivate all who carry on her work.”
Wilma is the author of numerous books including, A Chief and Her People,” and “Everyday is a Good Day,” which includes a foreword by Gloria Steinem.