Wilma Mankiller was born on November 8, 1945, around the tribal capital of Tahlequah, in eastern Oklahoma. Her last name, Mankiller, was adopted by her ancestors, which refers to a person who watched over Cherokee people and villages.
Mankiller spent her early childhood on her grandfather’s 160-acre tract that was given to him as a settlement after the government forced the Cherokee to relocate to Oklahoma from their tribal lands in the Carolinas and Georgia. Though Mankiller later recalled that she had never really felt poor at the time, her family did not have sufficient plumbing and power to electrify their homes.
From 1946 through the 1960s, the government passed a series of laws known as the “termination” bills that repossessed tribal lands and forced Native Americans to assimilate. Over 100 tribes perished, and at least 1.3 million acres of land were removed. Mankiller’s family was affected by laws and moved to San Francisco as part of a relocation policy.
Mankiller’s activism began in 1957, where she joined the protest at Alcatraz to call attention to the government’s treatment of Indigenous communities. Soon she began volunteering in tribal affairs and landed a job as a coordinator of Indian programs in Oakland public schools. In 1975, she moved back to her grandfather’s land in Oklahoma and committed herself to restore her tribe’s culture and traditions.
Mankiller recalled, “In Bell, Oklahoma, 25 percent of people didn’t have indoor plumbing and lived in dilapidated conditions.” In 1981, as the founder of the community development department of the Cherokee Nation, the first call of action was to build a waterline to bring clean water and rehabilitate housing. She continued to organize local volunteers to improve her community’s conditions.
Her successes led her to gain recognition from the tribe’s Principal Chief, Ross Swimmer. Swimmer asked her to be his running mate as Deputy Chief of the Cherokee Nation in his Principal Chief bid. Two years after Swimmer won the election in 1983, he stepped down and Mankiller became the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Mankiller was admired by her humility and commitment to revitalize the Cherokee Nation’s tribal government and improve its education, health, and housing. She started a center for prevention of drug abuse and helped develop the Office of Tribal Justice in the U.S. Department of Justice. Mankiller was the Cherokee chief from 1985 to 1995, and during her tenure the nation’s membership more than doubled from 68,000 to 170,000.
Her life changed, she said, and she gain international recognition from the government that recommitted themselves to support tribal economic recovery. In 1994, Mankiller was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. President Bill Clinton awarded Mankiller the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.
In 2010, Mankiller passed away from an ongoing battle with two serious diseases, lymphoma and a neuromuscular disorder called myasthenia gravis. She continued the rest of her life as “Grandma Chief,” reconnecting with tribal communities that were disbanded and left a legacy of community-oriented policies that have served as a model for other tribal nations.