Wilma Mankiller was a wife, a mother, and Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. From the time she finished high school until her death she worked to improve the lives of her people – helping them to receive better education and health care. She taught her people to persevere and take pride in their Cherokee traditions.
The occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 by Native Americans of different tribes had a profound effect on Mankiller. She realized then what she needed to do to tell the world that Native Americans also had rights, and she began serving them especially in the area of law and legal defense. As a single head of household who struggled with health issues, Mankiller decided to return to the reservation for good.
At that time Ross Swimmer, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, asked Mankiller to be his deputy chief. They won the election, and two years later Swimmer became head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Mankiller was sworn in to replace him as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. She focused her people on education and health care. She had new schools, job training centers, and health clinics constructed. She “showed the world what Cherokee people can do” by organizing them to construct a self-help water line in one of the reservation districts.
Mankiller taught Cherokees the choice was theirs – their lives and their future – to transform themselves. They could decide what to do and whom they wanted to become.
Chad Smith, the current Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, expressed well the legacy Mankiller leaves. He said we are a better people and a strong tribal nation because of her example of Cherokee leadership, statesmanship, humility, determination and decisiveness.
Mankiller’s great expertise in governance, community development, and conceptualization of how to improve lives and instill self-sufficiency and hope for the future earned her national recognition. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the International Women’s Hall of Fame, the Minority Business Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. She held 18 honorary doctorates and served as a Chubb Fellow at Yale University and as a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College.
Mankiller served as the Morse Chair, Professor of Law and Politics at the University of Oregon in the fall of 2005. She presented more than 100 lectures and published more than a dozen papers. She was one of a handful of Native American recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Mankiller co-edited A Reader’s Companion to the History of Women in the U.S. (Houghton-Mifflin) and co-authored Mankiller: A Chief and Her People (St. Martin’s Press). Her most recent book, Every Day is a Good Day, was published by Fulcrum Press in the fall of 2004.
“She was a guiding power for the Cherokee people of Oklahoma and a symbol of achievement for women everywhere,” according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography.
Wilma Mankiller accepted a life mission that was heavy with responsibility, but she refused to allow it to weigh down her spirit. She was a great woman who neither thought about how much she deserved admiration nor noticed just how many people she inspired.
Dr. Claire Van Ummersen is vice president for the Center for Effective Leadership at the American Council on Education.