Wilma Mankiller
Breathing New Life into the Cherokee Nation
Wilma Mankiller was the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation who came into power facing unpopularity because she was a woman. But she turned those who opposed her into her supporters and became known as a great leader. And even though she stepped down from her position in 1995, she remains one of the most honored Cherokees of the 20th century.

Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born on November 18th, 1945 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, but grew up in Adair County, Oklahoma. When she was nine Wilma and her family moved to San Francisco hoping to find a 'better life' according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Indian Relocation Program. However, when the relocation program failed to keep promises it made, Wilma became an activist fighting for the rights of Native Americans.

In 1977 Wilma returned home to work for her people and began in a low-level job in the Cherokee Nation. She worked hard for her people for many years and was recognized by Ross Swimmer for her work and her conviction. In 1983, Ross Swimmer was elected the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation with Wilma as his running mate. He stepped down as the principal chief in 1985 to become the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington DC, leaving Wilma to be the principal chief. She worked hard in those years to prove herself–as the first female chief–to her people and was freely re-elected in 1987. And after another 4 year term, she was elected by a landslide margin (83%) in 1991. She finally retired in 1995, after being in office for 12 years, primarily because of health issues.

During her time in office, Wilma faced many challenges and turned them into accomplishments. She bettered the lives of her people by building health clinics, bringing water and electricity to poor communities, and supporting small businesses. These things meant a great deal to many people, but Wilma also tackled big issues like the male-domination of the Cherokee Nation, which went against traditional Cherokee values. She also spoke out against Native American stereotypes and worked to make the mainstream image of Native Americans one of regular people with the same wants and needs as everyone else. And in doing this she worked to build the confidence of her people that they deserved equality and as well in their own culture; she helped the people of the Cherokee Nation to believe in themselves again.

Wilma Mankiller is still remembered today for changing the lives and minds of the Cherokee people and shaping America's image of Native Americans; breaking down barriers of racism and sexism to further equality for everyone today.

For More Information:

Glassman, Bruce. Wilma Mankiller: Chief of the Cherokee Nation (Library of Famous Women Series). 1992, Blackbirch Press, Inc.

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