From the dregs of poverty, a homeless single mother rose to become a mighty leader and one of the world’s most revered women
Wilma Mankiller was as fierce a leader as her ancient Native namesake implied. Like so many Native leaders guiding their people through the brutality of a white world, she overcame unimaginable hardships. She overcame a life of poverty and disenfranchisement to rise to worldwide admiration and guided her people into the 21st century with a fiery and proud spirit.
She was born in 1945 in Oklahoma, where her Cherokee people had been forced marched a century before across the eastern continent in the infamous “Trail of Tears.” One of eleven children living on the Cherokee reservation, the Mankillers living in a shack with no electricity, used coal for heat and light, and frequently ate squirrel for sustenance. Despite their poverty, Wilma’s father instilled in her a love of the land and a strong pride in her Cherokee heritage.
In the mid-1950s, the government again thought relocating Indians was a good idea and started a program to move native families from rural reservation to large cities where they could find employment. The Mankiller’s family displacement to the poor African-American slums of San Francisco was hard; they lost even more of their roots—their ancestral culture and connections to the land. But Wilma and her family did find Native ties and the beginnings of her future activism at the San Francisco Indian Center in the Mission district of the city. Eventually, Wilma would become the director of Oakland’s Native American Youth Center.
When Alcatraz Prison, located on an island in San Francisco Bay, was closed, Native Americans across the country took the opportunity to rally to reclaim the island in 1969. They took the stand that they should be able to buy back their island for $24 in glass beads and red cloth, the amount for which Manhattan island was purchased by the Europeans. Wilma and her siblings joined thousands of other Native Americans in the occupation of Alcatraz and other protests about broken treaties and Native land rights.
The Native protests and the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s galvanized Wilma’s passion to help her people and work to better their civil rights and living standards. She had married an Ecuadorian man and had two children, but her husband was not supportive of her activism and in 1977, she divorced and returned to Oklahoma and Cherokee Nation land. Having no money, a poor and homeless single mother with two daughters, she landed a job with the Cherokee Nation in community development for the tribe.
Wilma’s first job was to help an Oklahoma Cherokee reservation community of 200 families with no running water or electricity to build a water line. Over the next eight years, she worked tirelessly to worked to create jobs, improve access to healthcare, water and electricity, and fight both rural and urban poverty of her people. Her reputation as a fighter for her people resulted in her becoming a Deputy Chief in 1983. Two years later—and only eight years after she arrived in Oklahoma as a homeless single mother living in her car—she would become the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, the first woman to do so.
When she as the first female principal chief of the Cherokee took her mantle, many in the media asked Mankiller to dress in a chieftain traditional attire for a photo opportunity. But Mankiller insisted that she be depicted as a modern Native leader for the 21st century.
“A significant number of people believe tribal people still live and dress as they did 300 years ago,” she said. “During my tenure as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, national news agencies requesting interviews sometimes asked if they could film a tribal dance or if I would wear traditional tribal clothing for the interview. I doubt they asked the president of the United States to dress like a pilgrim for an interview.”
She was just as fierce regarding the official treatment of Native people since the arrival of whites: “The fledgling United States government’s method of dealing with native people — a process which then included systematic genocide, property theft, and total subjugation — reached its nadir in 1830 under the federal policy of President Andrew Jackson. From the very birth of the nation, the U.S. government truly had carried out a vigorous operation of extermination and removal,” she said. And that policy has continued into modern times.
On Dec. 14, 1985, Wilma Mankiller took office as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. She served in that role until 1995.
Wilma would begin to gain huge international acknowledgement of her extraordinary leadership of the nation’s then largest American. Indian tribe of more than 200,000. She would be honored on the cover of TIME magazine and many other media, would be woman of the year of MS. Magazine, inducted into the U.S. Women’s Hall of Fame, and awarded the U.S.’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom. Her 1993 autobiography, MANKILLER, would become an instant international bestseller.
But her rise to leadership was not easy. She not only faced tremendous racism outside of her tribe, but also sexism within and outside of her tribe. And those were not her only challenges. She faced deadly, life-threatening health problems throughout her life.
Her father had died of kidney failure in 1971. His death, she said, "tore through my spirit like a blade of lightning. " Soon, she would be diagnosed with serious kidney disease herself. In 1979, she was nearly killed in a head-on collision that killed the other driver. In a horrific coincidence, the other driver was her best friend. She spent a year in healing and rehabilitation. In 1980, she was diagnosed with a devastating neuromuscular disease, myasthenia gravis. Surgery cured her. In 1995, the last year of her ten-year tenure as Chief, she was diagnosed with cancer. During this entire time, her kidney disease continued to plague her. She had two kidney transplants, one in 1990 and 1998. In 1999, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite being attacked by terminal diseases from nearly every angle, her indomitable spirit lived on. She survived and worked eleven more years.
She died on April 6, 2010 in Adair County, Oklahoma. Her close friend, famous feminist and civil rights activist, Gloria Steinem, was at her bedside when she died at the young age of 64.
“Ancient traditions call for setting signal fires to light the way home for a great one. Fires were lit in 23 countries around the world after Wilma's death,” said Steinem of her dear friend. “The millions she touched will continue her work, but I will miss her every day of my life.”
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"Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller" was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on September 8, 2021, Wednesday
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