top of page

Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010)

Born on her grandfather’s original Adair County allotment, this daughter of a Cherokee father and Irish-Dutch mother rose to become the first female deputy chief of the second largest tribe in North America in 1983, and its first principal chief in 1985. The latter occurred when President Ronald Reagan appointed principal chief Ross Swimmer as head of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. She held the office for ten years, twice winning re-election, the second time with 83% of the vote.

She long labored as chief for her announced “long-term goal…to develop the economy of the tribe in 14 counties of northeastern Oklahoma where many of our 67,000 members are concentrated.”

Historian Linda D. Wilson catalogued some of Mankiller’s glittering accomplishments as leader of a tribe that had 140,000 enrolled members and a $75-million budget:

“Increasing tribal membership and revenues by almost 200 percent, opening three rural health centers, expanding the Head Start program for Cherokee children, and starting a center for prevention of drug abuse….she was a founding director of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department. Mankiller helped establish an Office of Tribal Justice in the U.S. Department of Justice and helped found the Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations.”

Underneath those historic accomplishments beat a heart that burned for her people. The federal urbanization program moved Mankiller from the Cherokee country of northeast Oklahoma to San Francisco in 1957 as it sought to deliver Indians from desultory reservations. She recalled that she “cried for days, not unlike the children who had stumbled down the Trail of Tears so many years before. I wept tears…tears from my history, from my tribe’s past. They were Cherokee tears.”

She reached adulthood amidst the locus of 1960s societal upheaval, the area of California that encompassed San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland. This included the mostly-Indian occupation of abandoned Alcatraz Prison in a successful attempt to bring attention to broken treaties and Native health problems. These and other Native protests propelled Mankiller, a married mother of two children, to a late college degree, organizing work among California Indians, and a return to her native Oklahoma to serve her tribe and labor for improvements in their plight.

Failing health caused her to retire as chief in 1997. She lived on her old family allotment, cooked on a wood-burning stove, and pursued a vibrant writing and speaking schedule. She won a bevy of laurels, including the nation’s supreme civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, before dying of pancreatic cancer in 2009.


The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book

Oklahomans Vol 2 :

Statehood - 2020s

which can be purchased HERE.

View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.

8 views0 comments

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page