Her ancestry can be traced back to the Trail of Tears. Wilma Mankiller’s great-grandfather was one of the Native Americans forced to walk from the Southeastern United States to a reservation in Oklahoma. Out of 16,000 Native Americans battling harsh weather conditions, disease and abuse from United States soldiers, four thousand Native Americans died.
Wilma Mankiller was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma which is the capital of the Cherokee Indian Nation. Her father, Charlie Mankiller accepted a government offer to relocate to San Francisco with the hope of escaping the poverty they faced in Oklahoma.
As is customary for the U.S. government, particularly where the Native American is concerned, promises made to the family were not kept, including monetary assistance for the relocation. They continued living in poverty in California.
Mankiller worked as a clerk after finishing high school. She was content to settle into a life with Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi and mother to their two daughters.
But Alcatraz changed all that. A group of Native Americans occupied an abandoned prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. It was a political statement calling attention to the neglect and mistreatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government.
This action moved Mankiller into taking a more active role in helping her own native people. She became more independent, taking courses at a community college and San Francisco State. She became more active in the native community in San Francisco. Her independence did not come without a price. By 1974, she and Hugo were divorced and Mankiller was a single mom.
Mankiller’s father died in 1971 from kidney disease. He was taken to Oklahoma for burial and Mankiller returned to San Francisco. But it wasn’t long before Mankiller also experienced kidney problems.
Kidney problems were just the beginning of Mankiller’s health issues. She returned to Oklahoma in 1976 and began attending the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville while working as a community coordinator. On one of her long drives home three years later, she was involved in a near-head-on collision which also claimed the life of her best friend who was driving the other car.
Mankiller underwent seventeen operations after the accident and barely avoided the loss of her right leg. It forced her to reevaluate her life with a deep spiritual awakening.
A year after the accident, Mankiller was diagnosed with a chronic neuromuscular disease, myasthenia gravis. This disease causes various degrees of weakness in the body’s voluntary muscles.
Facing such health issues, Mankiller’s determination to help her native people was only strengthened.
She threw herself into the Bell project, the revitalization of the community by community members. This project led to Ross Swimmer, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, to ask Mankiller to be his deputy chief in the 1983 election. Mankiller received death threats and had her tires slashed during the campaign. Nonetheless, Swimmer and Mankiller won the election and took office in August.
But Swimmer was headed for bigger things. In 1985, he was nominated to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. Much to the dismay of the male-dominated Cherokee Nation, Mankiller was required to fulfill the duties of the Chief as mandated by Cherokee law. Upon stepping into this position, Mankiller became the first female Chief of the Cherokee Indian Nation.
While in office during her first term, Mankiller was forced to undergo a kidney transplant due to her recurring kidney problems. Her brother, Don Mankiller, was the donor. After many discussion with family, including new husband Charlie Soap, Mankiller decided to run for Chief in the 1987 elections.
By this time, Mankiller was making progress in improving the lives of Cherokee Nation members. She won the 1987 and 1991 elections.
During her tenure, Mankiller founded the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department, improved federal-tribal negotiations, and used Federal Government Self-Determination monies to improve infrastructure, establish tribally-owned businesses and build a hydroelectric facility.
She presided over more than 220,000 people with an annual budget of $75 million. In 1990, she signed an agreement allowing her people to manage federal funds that used to be managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She also worked to improve the Cherokee Nation’s courts, education and police force.
Mankiller declined to run for office during the 1995 elections due to ongoing health issues.
The legacy of Mankiller’s tenure as Chief of the Cherokee Indian Nation reflected her goals and truest desires going in: the self-sufficiency of her people, community improvement and a greater balance between the genders. She faced many obstacles and challenges, both as a woman and as a member of the Cherokee Nation, to attain these goals.
She definitely lived up to her family name. Mankiller is an old military title given to the person in charge of protecting the village.
Mankiller was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1998. She was also Ms. Magazine’s Woman of the Year in 1987 and a recipient of the Elizabeth Blackwell Award.
Her book, co-written by Michael Wallis, “Mankiller: A Chief and Her People” (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999) was a national bestseller.