Wilma Mankiller, first female principal chief of Cherokee Nation, led with compassion and continues to inspire today

Wilma Mankiller served in the top leadership role of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995. Peter Turnley/Corbis Historical via Getty Images

Julie Reed, Penn State

If you fish in your pocket or purse for a U.S. quarter today, there’s a chance you’ll see Wilma Mankiller’s face. She was the Cherokee Nation’s first female principal chief, and she inspired generations of Cherokees and young Native people like me.

In 2022, Mankiller was one of the first women honored by appearing on a series of quarters, along with renowned poet and activist Maya Angelou and physicist and astronaut Sally Ride. Mankiller’s quarter, issued in the summer of 2022, marks the first time that a Native American woman has been featured on a U.S. coin since Sacagawea appeared on the golden dollar in 2000.

As a historian of Native American history, I credit my professional career to Mankiller, whom I heard speak at Salem Women’s College when I was an undergraduate student there. I had never seen a non-Native audience listen so intently to a woman who looked like my father’s ancestors and grew up in rural Oklahoma, as he did. Like many young Cherokee people, I was raised outside the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation.

Following her lecture, I tore through her autobiography, “Mankiller: A Chief and Her People.” In her book and through her life’s work, Mankiller introduced a generation of people not just to Cherokee history but also to a model of Native women’s leadership, leading by listening to the voices from her community and supporting the programs they sought.

Early life

Mankiller’s life resembled many Native people’s lives in the 20th century before she assumed the role of principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985.

She was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, at an Indian hospital in 1945. She grew up on land secured by Cherokee people over three generations of shifting U.S. federal Indian policies, each with devastating results: the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, the Treaty of 1866 and the Curtis Act in 1898.

Mankiller’s family relocated to San Francisco in the 1950s after Congress passed the termination and relocation policy, seeking to break up and relocate Native American tribes to assimilate them. In San Francisco she met Indigenous people from diverse communities.

woman with thick brown hair sitting at a desk in a classroom and outstretching her arm
Mankiller’s duties as chief included attending the Arkansas Riverbed Authority meetings to discuss multiple Native communities’ access to water. Tom Gilbert/Tulsa World via AP Images

She came of age in San Francisco during the Red Power Movement, which was marked by Indigenous people’s activism across the country and aimed to draw attention to broken treaty promises, widespread dispossession and police brutality. She and her siblings supported the occupation of Alcatraz, a takeover by Native activists that lasted 18 months.

She married young, had children and willed herself through a college education. She divorced and returned home to Oklahoma in 1976 as a single parent with two daughters. Mankiller’s family history, like that of so many Native Americans in this country, cannot be told or understood without understanding changes in federal Indian policy, which often dictated where Native people lived and the economic opportunities available to them.

What she means to Cherokee people

Mankiller’s life was similar to those of many families who remained in Oklahoma on allotments or within Cherokee communities after Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Until the age of 11, she grew up in Adair County, which was about 46% Cherokee in the 2020 census.

When she returned to Oklahoma from California in the late 1970s to work for the Cherokee Nation, she prioritized and supported a community-driven project that brought running water to the Bell community. Bell, a rural community in Adair County, is still home to large pockets of Cherokee people. This effort was later dramatized in the 2013 film “The Cherokee Word for Water.” Mankiller’s commitment to improving the lives of Cherokee people was central to her work, even before she became chief.

Her rise to the position of principal chief in 1985 coincided with a moment when the efforts of civil rights activists, Black nationalists, Red Power and women’s rights activists of the previous decades were bearing fruit. She represented and modeled what people like Gloria Steinem, with whom Mankiller formed an enduring friendship, hoped to see more people achieve in the larger U.S.

A tall white man with thick gray hair places medal around neck of shorter woman with cropped brown hair
President Clinton awards Wilma Mankiller the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

Mankiller’s impact extended beyond Cherokee people. In a nod to her accomplishments, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. Mankiller understood that she represented how far women leaders had come and the hope we might still arrive where we need to be.

I still remember learning of her death from pancreatic cancer in April 2010 when I was a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, not far from Salem College where she first inspired me. I, like many others I imagine, wept for her, enormously proud of all she had achieved.

The Cherokee value of gadugi

Mankiller’s transition to chief wasn’t easy. People initially questioned a woman’s ability to lead the tribe. If there was any doubt of Mankiller’s capabilities as a leader when she took over as chief in 1985, in her second election to office six years later, she received almost 83% of the vote.

She gained support by exemplifying gadugi – a Cherokee word that means working together collectively for the benefit of the whole community. She drew upon her culture, history and tribal identity as a leader, and she raised her daughters Gina and Felicia Olaya to do the same. Though neither held office, both have worked for and supported the Cherokee Nation throughout their lives.

During her time as chief, Mankiller provided a foundation for the continued growth of the Cherokee Nation. Enrollment in Cherokee Nation doubled under her leadership. She championed education and secured a US$9 million vocational center. A 1991 Parade Magazine profile described her leadership style as quiet but strong.

At her mother’s memorial, Gina, who died in October 2022, said that her mother taught her family “how to laugh, how to dance, to appreciate Motown music, to be a humble servant to our people, to love one another unequivocally and to cherish each and every moment we spent together as a family.”

Mankiller articulated what generations of Cherokee people knew – that Indigenous people are capable of generating the solutions to the problems they face. As chief, she focused on issues that benefited some of the most vulnerable Cherokee people, such as rural development, housing, employment and education. Mankiller listened to community members to determine the way forward. I believe her legacy, now enshrined on a quarter, will continue to inspire new generations of people seeking to make a difference in the world.

Julie Reed, Associate Professor in History, Penn State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Love, hate, and fear

Living in a world that is full of fear, politics, and hate, Living and wishing that we all would choose a better fate, Wanting to see a change towards compassion before it is too late. They hate someone who is of another color and race, and they despise those who don’t belong to their political base. They create reasons to hate each other at an exponential pace. Love tries to break through all the hate and light the way, respect is what we need in all we do and say, Hope keeps us moving forward toward a better day.

Question why you hate and ask why you fear, Question all that you see and verify all that you hear, Question everything and think for yourself if you hold life and this world dear. Be true to yourself and be fair to all, don’t let fear or anger lead you to fall, and be ready to share compassion and answer love’s call. No one is above and no one is below, we are the same in the cosmic flow, and we all have a part to play in this cosmic show.

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Our color or race matters not, our sex or preference matters not, we are all human and this is the only life we got. Right or Left matters none, we as a species are one, how we live and treat each other is what matters when it’s all said and done. Fear just divides and keeps one distracted and lost, hate destroys those who embrace it and has a heavy cost.

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Acceptence, tolerance, and compassion are the keys to being forward-moving, Love is the fuel for our hearts to keep on grooving. Respect is the foundation we must build on, Life is what we must cherish before it is gone. We all are human and need to see that is true, working as one and doing for others is what we all need to do. If you choose to love or you choose to hate and fear it is all up to you.

A Day of Birth and Reflections of Years Past.

Loreto Home of Compassion.

Another year has past and one more year closer to growing old
Another year gone and with it the world grows even more cold

Cold the world might be but that does not phase the love i feel
The world grows more selfish and that is something that is real.

The light is growing dimmer each day as life slowly slips away from us all.
The source of love still remains strong and we should answer its call.

God is the light that will never burn out and we are mere reflections of his undying love.
His son came to teach us compassion and forgiveness with the gentleness of a dove.

Unfortunately mankind grows arrogant and their hearts are full of a very selfish pride.
Greed and corruption rules over most and from the aftermath there may be nowhere to hide.

With age comes wisdom, experience and  hind sight is always 20/20 as we all know.
The piece of wisdom I try to share is to always let your love and compassion show.

Mistakes we may all make in the life we are granted and to learn from them is the key.
Anger is quick to destroy the love and compassion that resides in both you and me.

If you take anything from all the things i write I hope it is to love one another both freely and unconditionally.
For life is too short to hold grudges, place/carry blame for mistakes intentionally done or unintentionally.

Live life to the fullest and don’t allow fear to rule your world for it will only stop you from truly living life.
Don’t hang on to regrets or anger for all that will do is fill your world with unneeded and undeserved strife.

Peace to all
R. Barbier

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