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Story of Inspiration and Hope

In 1985, Wilma Mankiller made history when she became the first woman to lead the Cherokee Nation, one of the largest Native American tribes in the United States.  US quarter also celebrated Cherokee leader Wilma Mankiller

Mankiller, whose last name signifies a traditional Cherokee military rank, was the first woman in the US to lead a major tribal nation. Born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma in 1945, she and her family moved to San Francisco when she was 11 under a Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program, a policy that encouraged Native Americans to move from reservations to urban areas in an attempt to assimilate them.

It was there in the Bay Area that Mankiller first got involved in the activism that would shape the rest of her life and career, starting with the occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native American activists. Protesters’ attempt to symbolically claim the island for Indigenous people in 1969 stirred something in Mankiller.

“I had felt there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t happy being a traditional housewife,” she said in a 1993 interview with the New York Times. “What Alcatraz did for me was, it enabled me to see people who felt like I did but could articulate it much better. We can do something about the fact that treaties are no longer recognized, that there needs to be better education and health care.”

Mankiller spent the next several years working to support Native communities in California, returning home to Oklahoma in 1977, according to the National Women’s History Museum. She founded the Cherokee Nation’s Community Development Department, fighting for better water and housing access for her people. Among her achievements was helping to bring a stable water supply to the Cherokee community in Bell, Oklahoma, a story chronicled in the feature film “The Cherokee Word for Water.”

In 1985, Mankiller became principal chief of the Cherokee Nation – a position she would hold for a decade. Under her tenure, tribal enrollment tripled, and employment and educational achievement also rose. She worked to improve the health of the community, overseeing the construction of health centers and children’s programs as well as a decline in infant mortality.

Mankiller is also remembered for building bridges between the Cherokee Nation and the US government, signing a historic agreement in 1990 that expanded the tribe’s self-governance. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and retired from public office in 1995. In 1998, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom under Bill Clinton.

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