Born in Oklahoma on her father’s tribal lands (post-Trail-of-Tears tribal lands, anyway), Wilma Mankiller grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, marrying young and giving birth to two daughters.
In the late 1960s, she got involved in Native American activism, helping to occupy Alcatraz and bring attention to governmental abuse of tribal peoples.
Her activism and desire for an education led to the end of her marriage, and she returned to Oklahoma with her girls in 1977, to focus her work on Cherokee people. Within six years, she was asked to run as Deputy Chief (like a VP) with incumbent Principal Chief Ross Swimmer. Although they won, Mankiller was verbally assaulted and threatened during the campaign for stepping out her “rightful” place as a woman. When Swimmer was tapped to head the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, Mankiller became the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, serving from 1985 to 1995.
Despite significant health problems including inherited kidney disease, a near-fatal car crash in 1979, and breast cancer–to mention only a few–Mankiller turned her efforts to organizing collective efforts to build and improve infrastructure for the tribe: schools, water treatment and distribution plants, and hydroelectric energy facilities.
She also advocated for women in particular, calling attention to issues of intimate partner violence, and arguing that sex-based biases were not compatible with traditional Cherokee values.
After her tenure as Chief, Mankiller worked as a teacher and activist for another fifteen years, before her death by pancreatic cancer almost one year ago, at the age of 64. For her bravery in the face of remarkable odds and mighty efforts for those disenfranchised by multiple layers of discrimination and ignorance, we salute Principal Chief Wilma Pearl Mankiller as a member of the Harpy Hall of Fame.
You can read an excerpt of Mankiller’s Every Day is a Good Day here.