Women’s history month is a time to reflect on the successes of women’s achievements in history. Indigenous leaders I would like to highlight this month include Wilma Mankiller, Elizabeth Peratrovich, and Annie Wauneka.
“One of the things my parents taught me, and I’ll always be grateful . . . is to not ever let anybody else define me; [but] for me to define myself . . .”
Mankiller was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Her last name, “Mankiller,” translates from Asgaya-dihi (Cherokee written language: ᎠᏍᎦᏯᏗᎯ) which refers to a military rank in Cherokee traditions.
Mankiller grew up impoverished in Oklahoma. When she was a child, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had her family relocate to San Francisco, California as part of its Indian relocation policy. Its aim was to move Indians to cities to get jobs. In a 1993 interview with The New York Times, Mankiller said this experience was just like her own Trail of Tears. Her Cherokee ancestors had been forced to move from Tennessee to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears just over a century before.
Mankiller’s interest in Indian activism arose in 1969. The American Indian Movement (AIM) had taken over the federal prison on Alcatraz Island to bring attention to the plight of American Indians in modern times. Mankiller said, “I became aware of what needed to be done to let the rest of the world know that Indians had rights, too.”
While in California, Mankiller helped restore tribal heritage pride in urban Native youth, as a Native youth program director. She also lent support to the Pit River Tribe in its legal battle against an energy company over tribal land rights.
After Mankiller moved back to Oklahoma, she founded the Community Development Department for her tribe. Her previous work with the tribal land case had prepared her to exercise tribal sovereignty and treaty rights at home in her own community. Cherokee community development focused on improving access to water and housing. Her first project led to a new, 16-mile waterline being built over a 14-month period that served 200 tribal families. A movie, The Cherokee Word for Water, was made about this feat.
Mankiller was elected to serve as the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985, a position she held for the next ten years. As the first woman to be elected chief of a major tribe, Mankiller revitalized Cherokee tribal government, and strongly advocated for improvements in Cherokee education, healthcare, and housing services. Under Mankiller’s leadership, the Cherokee infant mortality rate declined and educational achievement rose among tribal students. Mankiller continued to work with the federal government to build self-governing strategies and profit for the Cherokee Nation while securing tribal traditions and legal rights.
Mankiller earned many awards and honors for her life’s work. She received the Elizabeth Blackwell Award. She was selected as Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year in 1987. In 1993 Mankiller was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, was published that same year. In 1998 Mankiller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Wilma Mankiller will be honored this year on new quarter from the U.S. Mint. An image of her, along with Cherokee insignia, will be inscribed as part of the quarter design.