Wilma Mankiller

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Wilma Mankiller
Mankiller in 2001 (age 55).
Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation
In office
Preceded by Ross Swimmer
Succeeded by Joe Byrd
Personal details
Born Wilma pearl Mankiller
(1945-11-18)November 18, 1945
Tahlequah, Oklahoma, United States
Died April 6, 2010(2010-04-06) (aged 64)
Adair County, Oklahoma, United States
Cause of death Pancreatic cancer
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi (m. 1963–1977)
Charlie Soap (m. 1986)
Children 2
Alma mater Skyline College, San Francisco State University
Occupation Writer, author, tribal chief

Wilma Pearl Mankiller (November 18, 1945 – April 6, 2010) was a community organizer and the first woman elected to serve as chief of the Cherokee Nation. A liberal member of the Democratic Party,[1] she served as principal chief for ten years from 1985 to 1995, she was the author of a national-bestselling autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People and co-authored Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women. Mankiller's administration founded the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department and saw a population increase of Cherokee Nation citizens from 55,000 to 156,000.[citation needed]

Early life[edit]

Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the sixth of eleven children, to Charley Mankiller (November 15, 1914 – February 20, 1971)[2] and Clara Irene Sitton (September 18, 1921 – January 12, 2016),[3] her father was a full-blooded Cherokee and her mother was a European American woman of Dutch and Irish descent who acculturated herself to Cherokee life.[4]

Mankiller, refers to a traditional Cherokee high military rank[5]; it is Asgaya-dihi (Cherokee syllabary: ᎠᏍᎦᏯᏗᎯ) in the Cherokee language.[6] Alternative spellings are Outacity[7] or Outacite. Wilma Mankiller wrote that her great-great grandfather was listed as Kaskunnee Mankiller, and that he established Mankiller as the family surname, his wife was Lucy Matoy. One of their sons, Jacob Mankiller, was born in 1853. Jacob married Susan Teehee-Bearpaw. Jacob and Susan had eight children, the oldest being John Mankiller, Wilma's grandfather. John married Bettie Bolin Bendabout Canoe, whose Cherokee name was Quatie, it was John who received the allotment of 160 acres of tribal land in what would become Adair County, Oklahoma when Indian Territory became part of the new state of Oklahoma.[a] Their son, Charley, born November 15, 1914, was Wilma's father.[9]

Wilma's mother, Clara Irene Sitton, was born in Adair County, Oklahoma on September 18, 1921 to Robert Bailey and Pearl Irene Sitton, whose Dutch and Irish ancestors had settled in North Carolina. Orphaned at an early age, Pearl was sent to live with a relative in Washington County, Arkansas; in 1903, 19-year old Pearl left Arkansas to visit friends living in the community of Wauhillau, Indian Territory. There she met and soon married Robert Sitton, the son of William and Sarah Sitton, quickly starting a family. Between 1904 and 1921, the couple had three sons and four daughters, of which Clara Irene was the last child.[10]

The Sittons moved to Foraker, Oklahoma, where William had gotten a job with the railroad. Then they bought a farm near the community of Rocky Mountain, Oklahoma where Irene was born. While growing up, she met Charley Mankiller and decided to marry him, she was then 15 and he was 21. Grandma Sitton strongly opposed the marriage, she did not want Irene to marry a full-blood Indian. Moreover, he could barely eke out a living as the owner as a subsistence farmer, the couple disregarded Grandma's opposition and eloped to marry in the Baptist church in Mulberry, Oklahoma on March 6, 1937.[11]

The Mankiller family was destitute, and initially resided on Charley’s allotment lands of Mankiller Flats near Rocky Mountain, Oklahoma;[2][12] in 1942, during World War II, the United States Army exercised eminent domain for military purposes and took over the land of 45 Cherokee families, including the Mankillers, in order to expand Camp Gruber.[13] The Mankillers willingly left Oklahoma under the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Indian Relocation Program, the family relocated to San Francisco in 1956, and later settled in Daly City.[2][14]

In 1963, at the age of 17, Mankiller married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi, an Ecuadorian college student,[15] they moved to Oakland and had two daughters, Felicia Olaya, born in 1964, and Gina Olaya, born in 1966.[16]

Mankiller returned to school, first at Skyline College, and then San Francisco State University,[17] her bachelor's degree in the social sciences was from Flaming Rainbow University in Stilwell, Oklahoma and she did graduate work at the University of Arkansas.[18] She had been very involved in San Francisco’s Indian Center throughout her time in California; in the late 1960s, Mankiller joined the activist movement and participated in the Occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. For five years, she volunteered for the Pit River Tribe.[19]

After divorcing Hugo Olaya in 1977, Mankiller moved back to Oklahoma with her two young daughters, in hopes of helping her people, she began an entry-level job for the Cherokee Nation.[citation needed]

Political career[edit]

By 1983, Mankiller was elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation,[20] alongside Ross Swimmer, who was serving his third consecutive term as principal chief; in 1985, Chief Swimmer resigned when appointed as assistant secretary of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs.[21] Mankiller succeeded him as the first female principal chief of the Cherokee,[20] she was elected in her own campaign in 1987, and re-elected again in 1991 in a landslide victory, collecting 83% of the vote.[22] In 1995, Mankiller chose not to run again for chief, largely due to health problems.[citation needed]

Mankiller faced many obstacles during her tenure in office, at the time she became chief, the Cherokee Nation leadership was male-dominated. Such a structure contrasted with the traditional Cherokee culture and value system, which tended to include both sexes in leadership positions, though in somewhat different capacities.[23]

Over the course of her three terms, Mankiller reinvigorated the Cherokee Nation through community-development projects where men and women work collectively for the common good, these were funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs "Self Help" programs, initiated by the United Keetoowah Band, and with the help of the Federal government's self-determination monies. The projects included establishing tribally owned businesses (such as horticultural operations and plants with government defense contracts), improving infrastructure (such as providing running water to the community of Bell, Oklahoma), and building a hydroelectric facility.[24]

Under the US Federal policy of Native American self-determination, Mankiller improved federal-tribal negotiations. She helped prepare for today's Government-to-Government relationship which the Cherokee Nation has with the US Federal Government.[25]

Her administration founded the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department, revived the tribal Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah, and saw a population increase of Cherokee Nation citizens from 55,000 to 196,000. "Prior to my election," says Mankiller, "young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up and become chief."[26]

Mankiller established the law that limited tribal membership by excluding the Freedmen section of Cherokee Indians listed on the Dawes Rolls, generating the later Cherokee freedmen controversy, this law was ruled unconstitutional in 2006 by the Cherokee Nation's Judicial Appeals Tribunal (now called the Cherokee Supreme Court).[citation needed] Mankiller's administration was involved in many conflicts with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB), the other federally recognized Cherokee tribe headquartered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Her administration questioned the jurisdiction of the UKB, culminating in the closure of the UKB's smoke shops.[citation needed] A lawsuit was filed by the Cherokee Nation against Mankiller with allegations of embezzlement of tribal funds at the end of her final term in office, the case was regarding $300,000 paid out to tribal officials and department heads who left at the end of her term in 1995. The case, titled Cherokee Nation v. Mankiller, was withdrawn by a vote of the tribal council.[27] "We've had daunting problems in many critical areas," Mankiller has been quoting as saying, "but I believe in the old Cherokee injunction to 'be of a good mind.' Today it's called positive thinking."[20]

After her term as chief, she became a guest professor at Dartmouth College, where, in 1991, she also received an honorary degree;[21] in 1998, Bill Clinton awarded Mankiller the Medal of Freedom.[21]

President Obama said:

"I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Wilma Mankiller today. As the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, she transformed the Nation-to-Nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the Federal Government, and served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she was recognized for her vision and commitment to a brighter future for all Americans, her legacy will continue to encourage and motivate all who carry on her work. Michelle and I offer our condolences to Wilma’s family, especially her husband Charlie and two daughters, Gina and Felicia, as well as the Cherokee Nation and all those who knew her and were touched by her good works."[28]

Personal life and death[edit]

In 1979, she was involved in a near-fatal car accident which required multiple surgeries, she had multiple other health problems including myasthenia gravis, a kidney transplant, breast cancer, and lymphoma. After many years working together on Cherokee community development projects, Mankiller married her longtime friend, Charlie Lee Soap, a full-blood Cherokee traditionalist and fluent Cherokee speaker, in 1986,[29] they lived on Mankiller's ancestral land at Mankiller Flats. In March 2010 she was reported to be terminally ill with pancreatic cancer,[30] she died of the disease at her home in rural Adair County, Oklahoma,[31] on April 6, 2010. She was survived by her husband and both her daughters.[32][33] About 1,200 people attended her memorial service at the Cherokee National Cultural Grounds in Tahlequah on April 10.[34] Her interment was at Echota Cemetery in Stilwell.[citation needed]


She won several awards including Ms. Magazine's Woman of the Year in 1987, Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame, Woman of the Year, the Elizabeth Blackwell Award,[35] John W. Gardner Leadership Award, Independent Sector,[36] and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.[20] In 1993, Mankiller received the American Association of University Women's Achievement Award.[citation needed]

Her first book, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, an autobiography, became a national bestseller. Gloria Steinem said in a review that, "As one woman's journey, Mankiller opens the heart. As the history of a people, it informs the mind. Together, it teaches us that, as long as people like Wilma Mankiller carry the flame within them, centuries of ignorance and genocide can't extinguish the human spirit." Steinem went on to become one of Mankiller's closest friends. In 2004, Mankiller co-authored Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women.[36]

Mankiller is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the first woman chief of a Native American tribe; in the twentieth century, Alice Brown Davis became Principal Chief of the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma in 1922,[37] and Mildred Cleghorn became the Chairperson of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe in 1976.[38] In earlier times, a number of women led their tribes.[citation needed]

She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and in 1998 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom[39].

A 2013 feature film, The Cherokee Word for Water, tells the story of the Bell waterline project that helped launch Mankiller's political career, and was also the start of her friendship with her future husband, Charlie Soap; in the film, Mankiller is portrayed by actress Kimberly Norris Guerrero, and Soap by actor Moses Brings Plenty.[40][41]

The 2017 documentary film, Mankiller tells the story of Mankiller's life and her time as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.[42][43]

Mankiller's published writing[edit]

  • Hurtado, Albert L., editor. Mankiller, Wilma Pearl, introduction. Reflections on American Indian History: Honoring the Past, Building a Future. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008. ISBN 0-8061-3896-3.
  • Mankiller, Wilma, Vine Deloria, Jr., and Gloria Steinem. Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1-55591-516-7
  • Mankiller, Wilma and Michael Wallis. Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. ISBN 0-312-20662-3
  • Smith, Barbara, Gloria Steinem, Gwendolyn Mink, Marysa Navarro, and Wilma Mankiller, editors. A Reader's Companion to the History of Women in the U.S. Boston: Mariner Books, 1999. ISBN 0-395-67173-6
  • Kauger, Yvonne, Richard Du Bey, Wilma Pearl Mankiller, Judy A. Zelio. Promoting Effective State-Tribal Relations: A Dialogue. National Conference of State Legislatures: 1990. ISBN 1-55516-975-9.
  • Mankiller, Wilma P. The chief cooks: traditional Cherokee recipes. Muskogee, OK: Hoffman Printing Company, 1988. ASIN B000728364.


  1. ^ John named his newly-acquired land Mankiller Flats.[8]


  1. ^ Swygart, Glenn L. "American Indian Biographies - Wilma Pearl Mankiller" (PDF). Salempress.com. Salem Press. Retrieved September 24, 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c "Wilma Mankiller profile at notable Biographies website". Notablebiographies.com. Retrieved February 2, 2012. 
  3. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, p. 5, 31
  4. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, p. 9
  5. ^ "Wilma Pearl Mankiller | Native American leader". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-03-23. 
  6. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, p. 4
  7. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, p. 12
  8. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, p. 5
  9. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, pp. 4-5
  10. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, p. 10.
  11. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, p. 11.
  12. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, p. 32
  13. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, pp. 62–3
  14. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, p. 63, 70, 102
  15. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, pp. 145–47
  16. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, p. 150
  17. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, p. 158
  18. ^ Sam Howe Verhovek, "Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee Chief and First Woman to Lead Major Tribe, Is Dead at 64," The New York Times, April 6, 2010. Accessed November 29, 2012.
  19. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, p. 204
  20. ^ a b c d Women of the Hall National Women's Hall of Fame. (retrieved June 21, 2009)
  21. ^ a b c Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee Chief and First Woman to Lead Major Tribe, Is Dead at 64, by Sam Howe Verhovek, April 6, 2010
  22. ^ Champagne, p. 104
  23. ^ "Wilma Mankiller Lecture" University of Arizona, 2002, later broadcast on C-Span. Mankiller said:[citation needed]
    Cherokee women didn't have titled positions. The men had those, but the women had the Women's Council. They had a lot of control. People forget that [...] With the Iroquois the chief was a man, but the women chose the chief, the nurtured him, they installed him. Women could take him out.]
  24. ^ Champagne, pp. 104–5
  25. ^ Meredith, p. 143
  26. ^ "Wilma Pearl Mankiller: First woman chief of an American-Indian nation. ''America.gov.'' April 27, 2008 (retrieved June 21, 2009)". America.gov. Archived from the original on October 20, 2012. Retrieved December 19, 2012. 
  27. ^ Hales, Donna. "Cherokee Councillors Vote." Muskogee Phoenix. (March 20, 1998)
  28. ^ "Barack Obama, "Statement on Passing of Wilma Mankiller", White House Press Release". Whitehouse.gov. April 6, 2010. Archived from the original on October 19, 2012. Retrieved December 19, 2012. 
  29. ^ Mankiller and Wallis, pp. 235–37
  30. ^ Shannon Muchmore, "Former Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller gravely ill, husband says", Tulsa World, March 2, 2010.
  31. ^ "Former Cherokee Nation Chief Wilma Mankiller dies". Cherokeephoenix.org. Archived from the original on September 30, 2011. Retrieved February 2, 2012. 
  32. ^ Anonymous (April 6, 2010). "Former Cherokee Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller died". Muskogee Phoenix. Retrieved October 4, 2012. [dead link]
  33. ^ "Former Chief Of The Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller Dies – NewsOn6.com – Tulsa, OK – News, Weather, Video and Sports – KOTV.com |". NewsOn6.com. Retrieved February 2, 2012. 
  34. ^ Clifton Adcock, "More than 1,000 attend memorial service for former Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller", Tulsa World, April 10, 2010.
  35. ^ "HWS: The Blackwell Award". Hws.edu. Retrieved December 19, 2012. 
  36. ^ a b Nelson
  37. ^ Bates, Rechenda Davis Davis, Alice Brown (1852–1935). Archived June 14, 2013, at the Wayback Machine. Oklahoma Historical Society's Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. (retrieved June 21, 09)
  38. ^ Everett, Dianna. "Cleghorn, Mildred Imoch (1910–1997)" Oklahoma Historical Society's Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. (retrieved June 21, 09)
  39. ^ "Wilma Pearl Mankiller | Native American leader". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-03-23. 
  40. ^ Michael Overall, "'Cherokee Word for Water,' film about Wilma Mankiller, to premiere at Circle Cinema", Tulsa World, November 30, 2012 (pay site).
  41. ^ Teddye Snell, " The story of Bell: A new movie will highlight a waterline project spurred by the late former Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller." Tahlequah Daily Press, August 30, 2011.
  42. ^ "'Mankiller' LA Film Festival page". Retrieved July 17, 2017. 
  43. ^ Wilma Mankiller: An American Hero (An Interview With Gale Anne Hurd", National Women's History Museum, 2017 

Further reading[edit]

  • Johansen, Bruce E.; Jr, Donald A. Grinde, (1998). The encyclopedia of Native American biography : six hundred life stories of important people, from Powhatan to Wilma Mankiller (1st Da Capo Press ed ed.). New York , NY: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0306808706. 


External links[edit]

Preceded by
Ross Swimmer
Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation
Succeeded by
Joe Byrd