Wilma Pearl Mankiller was both the first woman deputy chief and the first woman principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
She overcame many personal hardships and returned home to Mankiller Flats, Oklahoma, to establish herself as a political powerhouse working for the betterment of all people.
Mankiller was born at Tahlequah, the capitol of the Cherokee Nation in November 1945, and lived at Mankiller Flats until she was ten years old. Her father, Charlie Mankiller, was a Cherokee, and her mother, Irene Mankiller, was of Dutch Irish decent. Mankiller grew up with four sisters and six brothers.
Wilma Mankiller’s story is profoundly interwoven with the history of the Cherokee. Once the Cherokee lived in Tennessee and across the South. By the early 1800’s white settlers were pushing them out of their native lands. Some left willingly and established new bases in Arkansas, only to be moved later to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Some refused to leave and hid out in the forests of the South, later forming an Eastern Cherokee nation.
In the 1830’s two-thirds of the Cherokee Nation were finally rounded up and forced to travel, mostly by foot, on a march now called the Trail of Tears. Those who survived the difficult march were placed on a reservation in Indian Territory. Once there, they were again neglected or mistreated by the government and by white settlers.
In Oklahoma, as in the Southeast, there were Cherokees who tried to adopt white ways. The result was a mix of some Indians who kept to Cherokee customs and others who joined economically and socially with whites. The confusion that resulted would greatly affect Mankiller’s early life.
Mankiller’s great-grandfather was one of the over 16,000 Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and African slaves who struggled along the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. It was a journey filled with suffering and danger, and there was little comfort at its end.
The government had adopted a policy of allotment, which worked against tribal bonds by changing the way Native American groups owned land. Granting plots of land to individual Indians, the government encouraged them to try the white way of personal landownership. Mankiller’s grandfather was allotted 160 acres in eastern Oklahoma, at a place called Mankiller Flats. This land eventually became the homestead of Charlie Mankiller, Wilma’s father, who eked out a living as a subsistence farmer.
The Mankillers were very poor in Oklahoma, but generally happy. The land was not rich, but it was pleasant. Charlie and Irene were devoted to each other and to their children, and evenings were spent telling stories of Cherokee history. Wilma attended Rocky Mountain Elementary School and there, for the first time, she confronted hostility from white people.
In the 1950s Congress decided it would be better if Native Americans were not concentrated into one area, and began to encourage-with offers of help-individuals and families to relocate to cities around the country, where they would be forced to adopt white ways. At this time, especially due to a recent drought,
Mankiller’s father found it difficult to maintain his family with any semblance of dignity in Oklahoma. Although they did not want to move to California, Charlie Mankiller thought he could make a better life for them there and accepted a government offer to relocate. But promises faltered, money did not arrive, and there was often no employment available, so their life did not improve after their arrival in San Francisco.
The children were homesick even before they started for California. As Mankiller recalled in her autobiography, Ï experienced my own Trail of Tears when I was a young girl. No one pointed a gun at me or at members of my family. No show of force was used. It was not necessary.
Nevertheless, the United States government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was again trying to settle the ‘Indian problem’ by removal. I learned through this ordeal about the fear and anguish that occur when you give up your home, your community, and everything you have ever known to move far away to a strange place. I cried for days, not unlike the children who had stumbled down the Trail of Tears so many years before. I wept tears that came from deep within the Cherokee part of me. They were tears from my history, from my tribe’s past. They were Cherokee tears.”
In California, cringing at the laughter that always followed the school roll call when the teacher said “Mankiller,”she finished high school. Her family began to spend hours at the San Francisco Indian Center and their frequent moves brought Wilma into frequent contact with people of different ethnic backgrounds. Mankiller’s father became a longshoreman, and soon was busy as a union organizer and social activist. Wilma Mankiller went on to pursue a higher education.
In the 1960s she attended Skyline Junior College in San Bruno, then San Francisco State College. At San Francisco State she met and married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi. Their first daughter, Felicia, was born in 1964 and their second, Gina, two years later. In college, Mankiller was introduced to some of the Native American activists who would soon occupy and reclaim Alcatraz Island for the Native American people.
The “invasion” of Alcatraz-the former site of a maximum-security prison-by Native Americans quickly became a focal point for many Native people, Mankiller included. The point of the action was to protest conditions of Indian reservations. The occupiers “claimed” Alcatraz, using the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie which held that if land acquired from the Indians was not in use, its ownership reverted, or went back, to them.
After small activist groups were removed twice from the island, 89 Indians moved in with food, water, and sleeping bags. Mankiller’s brothers and sisters joined in the occupation and stayed on the island, but because she had young children, Mankiller stayed at home to raise money for supplies for the occupiers. Stirred by the bold move onto Alcatraz by San Francisco State student Mohawk Richard Oakes, along with his “All Tribes” group, Mankiller realized that her mission in life was to serve her people.
She yearned for the independence, something caused a conflict with her marriage. “Once I began to become more independent, more active with school and in the community, it became increasingly difficult to keep my marriage together. Before that, Hugo had viewed me as someone he had rescued from a very bad life, “she noted in her autobiography. Hugo also was conservative politically, while Mankiller was becoming more active in civil rights and antiwar issues.
In 1974 the couple divorced, and Mankiller became a single head of household. She took her daughters to Oklahoma, got a job with the Cherokee Nation writing proposals for grants to improve Cherokee life, and built a house on the old Mankiller land.
In 1960, Mankiller’s brother Bob was badly burned in a fire. Not wanting to be an added burden to the survival of the family, he had traveled to pick apples in the Washington State. In the chill of early morning, he mistakenly started a fire with gasoline instead of kerosene, and his wooden shack exploded into flames. Bob survived for only six days. He had been Mankiller’s role model for a “carefree spirit”.
In 1971, Mankiller’s father died from a kidney disease n San Francisco. His passing, she recalled in her autobiography, “tore through my spirit like a blade of lightning.” The family took Charlie Mankiller home to Oklahoma for burial, then Mankiller returned to California. It was not long before she too had kidney problems, inherited from her father. Her early kidney problems could be treated, though later she had to have surgery and eventually, in 1990, needed a transplant. Her brother Donald became her “hero” by donating one of his kidneys so that she could live.
In 1976, after Mankiller had returned to Oklahoma for good, she found time to pursue higher education. She enrolled in graduate courses at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, which required her to drive a great distance every day.
She was retuning home one morning when an automobile approached her on a blind curve and, from seemingly nowhere, another automobile attempted to pass it. She swerved to miss the approaching automobile, but failed. The vehicles collided.
Mankiller was seriously injured, and many thought she would not survive. The driver of the other automobile did not. It turned out to be Sherry Morris, Mankiller’s best friend. It was terribly difficult, both physically and emotionally, but Mankiller recovered.
Shortly after this accident, she came down with myasthenia gravis, a muscle disease. Again her life, was threatened, but her will to live and her determination to mend her body with the power of her mind prevailed.
When she recovered from the auto accident, Mankiller returned to her job with the Cherokee Nation. In 1981 she developed a proposal to help the small community of Bell Oklahoma. It was to be a model that other communities could follow as the rebuilt Cherokee settlements. Mankiller had become convinced that Native Americans should become independent and self-reliant.
Mankiller secured the money to rebuild or repair several of the houses in the small community and to supply these houses with a reliable water source. She directed the rebuilding and the construction of pipeline to bring in water. The nearest steady source of water was 16 miles away, and yet the men, women, and children of the tiny village of Bell managed to lay the 16 miles of pipe.
Completing this task in 1981, Mankiller gained a reputation for effectiveness among the Cherokee. Chief Ross Swimmer, the elected head of the Cherokee Nation, was impressed by her work.
In 1983 Ross Swimmer asked Mankiller to be his Deputy Chief in the election, and she accepted. They won the election and took office on August 14, 1983. On December 5, 1985, Swimmer was nominated to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D. C., and Mankiller was sworn in as Principal Chief. She was reelected in 1987 and again in 1991 by her people.
During the Bell community project, Mankiller had worked with a quiet but powerful Cherokee named Charlie Soap. The two found that they had many common interests, and their friendship grew. In 1986 they married, and Charlie Soap became a major advisor and supporter of Chief Mankiller.
As Principal Chief, Mankiller planned immediately to involve the Cherokee people in their own community improvements. She carried on Swimmer’s policy of developing industries and served as head of a corporation that included a motel, an electronics manufacturing plant, and a bank. She raised $20 million for new construction in Cherokee communities and $8 million to found a Cherokee job training Center. There are now schools for Cherokee children that teach the Cherokee language and customs, knowledge that Mankiller believes builds pride among the people.
One of Mankiller’s great achievements was her 1987 effort to reunite the Cherokee Nation. The small group of Cherokee who had hidden from authorities in 1830 eventually settled on a reservation in Tennessee. They were the Eastern Cherokee, and Eastern and Western Cherokee had remained divided through the years. In 1987 Mankiller called and presided over a conference of all Cherokee, taking a first step toward reuniting the whole Cherokee Nation.
Power is returning to the Western Cherokee people, who number more that 175,000. Mankiller has proved an inspirational leader who empowers people to independence. The key to Cherokee success, says Mankiller, is that the Cherokee never give up.