Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller was the first woman to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, which position she held from 1985-1995.

Before I go on, in case you don’t read to the end, I want to encourage you to watch the linked video. It’s 55 minutes long–so, longer than the average YouTube video–but about the same length as an episode of your favorite TV show, so I know you can do this! Mankiller once said “[m]y own story has meaning only as long as it is a part of the overall story of my people.” The linked video is a wonderful documentary about not only this trailblazing woman, but about her community and how she restored self-determination to the people she served.

Mankiller was born in Oklahoma in 1945 and, when she was 11, her family moved from Oklahoma to San Francisco as part of a Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian Relocation Program. While in San Francisco in the 1960s and early-1970s, she became an activist. However, she always knew she would return to Oklahoma. When she did, in 1977, she had to readapt to Oklahoma Cherokee society, which she found had turned into a very patriarchal society–in contrast to the traditional Cherokee culture that had embraced the leadership and wisdom of women–that was being crushed by poverty. She said she “was hard pressed to find anyone with any beliefs in grass roots democracy,” at that time.

In 1983, she accepted Ross Swimmer’s invitation to join his ticket as his Deputy Chief running mate. Swimmer was running for his third term as Principal Chief. The thing that is remarkable about this is that Swimmer was a Republican and Mankiller was a Democrat. Her leadership was so outstanding, so bipartisan, and so community-based, Swimmer insisted that she run with him despite the political heat he knew he would take for having a Democrat–and a woman–as his running mate. The gamble paid off and they were elected. Then, in 1985, Swimmer was appointed by Ronald Reagan to be the Special Trustee for American Indians at the Department of the Interior and resigned, making Mankiller the Principal Chief. She ran for the position and was elected in 1987.

She said during her campaign for election she experienced overt and ugly sexism, including death threats, property damage, name-calling, etc. She said “sexism is like racism; it’s very dehumanizing. It became very hurtful to campaign.” But she persisted and was elected. She said “the issue, at least within the Cherokee Nation, of whether leadership has anything to do with gender or whether gender has anything to do with leadership, is settled.” She was reelected in 1991 by an overwhelming 82% vote.

She was a master at inspiring, empowering, and promoting collective self-determination and believed that “the rewards come from trying to break the cycle of poverty” within her community. She spearheaded numerous community development projects, and her hallmark was to inspire men and women to work together to complete the projects. The projects included business development (including casinos, horticulture operations, etc.), infrastructure (such as the Bell, OK project to install running water), schools, health care facilities, and more.

One person said that her leadership was so successful because she “viewed the Cherokee Nation from the perspective of the people,” rather than looking out at the people from the perspective of the Chief. She was–more than anything–a member of the community she led; the community’s success was her success and she could only succeed by her community succeeding.

She embraced being a role model, saying “prior to my election, young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up and become chief.” A self-proclaimed feminist, she said “a feminist, … is someone who advocates for the role of women, and I am absolutely, totally, 100% an advocate for women defining for themselves what it means to be a woman and doing anything they want to do.”

She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honor, and many other awards and accolades. Despite all this recognition, she said, “I want to be remembered as the person who helped us restore faith in ourselves. … I want it to be said that I did what I could.”

The thing I enjoy most about doing these Women’s History Month profiles is that I get the opportunity to learn something new about someone and, without exception, I am inspired by the women who have made and are making a difference in their own communities and, in so doing, are making a difference in the world. This is especially true with Wilma Mankiller. She was a phenomenal person who lived a life dedicated to her community and to making the lives of the people she served better in small ways, but also in large, fundamental, and lasting ways.

The linked documentary is a must watch.

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