The first female Principal Chief of the modern Cherokee Nation, the second-largest tribe in the United States
Wilma Mankiller was born on November 18, 1945, as the sixth of eleven children; born to a Cherokee father, Charley Mankiller, and a Dutch-Irish mother, Irene Sitton. When Wilma was 11, her family moved from her rural ancestral home in Oklahoma to the Bay Area of California. Wilma was against moving to California, but there she became involved in San Francisco’s Indian Center and was captivated by Native American efforts to reclaim Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, which started her lifelong activism. She married in 1963 and had two daughters. After divorcing her husband in 1977, Wilma took her daughters and moved back to Oklahoma to build a life on the Cherokee reservation.
She organized a community self-help project where volunteers from Bell, Oklahoma, constructed an 18-mile-long water system and repaired the dangerous housing. Her efforts earned her national recognition as the Ms Magazine Woman of the Year in 1987. She remarried to Charlie Soap, a full-blooded Cherokee. Mankiller became deputy principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1983 on the strength of her reputation as a community leader. When the principal chief resigned in 1985, Wilma became the first female Principal Chief of the modern Cherokee Nation, the second-largest tribe in the United States. In 1987 Wilma Mankiller ran for election as the principal chief and won. In traditional Cherokee culture, women played a vital role in the social and political life of the tribe. Women’s councils were common. For Mankiller, having a female chief was just a small step toward restoring the proper balance between the sexes in the world of the Cherokees. As chief, Mankiller focused on education, job training, and healthcare for her people. She was a consensus builder, working with the federal government to pilot a self-government agreement for the Cherokee Nation and with the Environmental Protection Agency. Wilma Mankiller died from pancreatic cancer in 2010 but her legacy continues in her work, and her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. Throughout the book, Mankiller narrates Cherokee and Indian history, their struggles with European conquest, and their struggle to maintain their cultural identity and dignity in the dominant society.