Happy Birthday Wilma Mankiller!
Wilma Mankiller was born on November 18th, 1945 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Mankiller was a Cherokee Indian descendent. Her great-grandfather lived through the forced march of Native Americans Westward, the “Trail of Tears.”
She grew up in Oklahoma until moving to California with her family during her adolescence. Her childhood home in Oklahoma was on tribal lands, a house that had no electricity, indoor plumbing or telephones. The Mankiller family moved looking for a better life, as part of a relocation policy to reclaim federally subsidized reservations. The deal was that families that moved would get good jobs in bigger cities. Unfortunately, California brought more financial struggle.
Mankiller married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi at the young age of 17 in 1963. Together they had tow daughters, Felicia and Gina. A few short years later, when Mankiller moved back to Oklahoma the two would separate.
She began college in California but midway through attaining her degree moved back to Oklahoma, finishing up a bachelor’s degree in social sciences. Mankiller would later take graduate courses at the University of Arkansas. Upon moving back to Oklahoma Mankiller married a longtime friend, Charlie Lee Soap, a “full-blood Cherokee traditionalist and fluent Cherokee speaker.”
Upon moving back to Oklahoma Mankiller fueled her passion for helping her people and became very involved in work of the Cherokee Indian Nation, beginning by working in their government as a tribal planner and program developer.
In 1979, Mankiller and her best friend were in a car tragic car accident. Her best friend passed away and Mankiller was seriously injured. She had to endure many surgeries followed by battling with a neuromuscular disease. Mankiller pushed through, surviving it all.
After working with the Cherokee Government for years Mankiller decided to run for deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1983. Mankiller won the election and served for two years. In 1985 Mankiller was named principal chief of the tribe, becoming the first woman to serve as principal chief in the history of the Cherokee people.
Mankiller served as chief for two full terms after that, winning re-election in 1987 and 1991. While in that position Mankiller centered on health-care, education and improving the nation’s government. Mankiller dealt with neuromuscular disorder, kidney failure and pancreatic cancer throughout her years as an activist and chief never showing signs until 1995 when Mankiller decided to not seek re-election.
Despite dealing with health problems Mankiller accomplished so much during her time as chief. She tripled the enrollment numbers of her tribe, doubled employment for her people, and built new housing, health centers and children’s programs in northeast Oklahoma.
After leaving her position as principal chief Mankiller stayed active in the community, as an activist for both Native Americans and women. She also taught at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire for a brief time. She also used her time after serving as principal chief to write, completing an autobiography in 1993, among other works.
Mankiller was honored for her decades of work, being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 to name a few.
Mankiller wanted to be remembered for emphasizing Cherokee values that can help solve contemporary problems. In a speech on Rebuilding the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller said, “I think the most important issue we have as a people is what we started, and that is to begin to trust our own thinking again and believe in ourselves enough to think that we can articulate our own vision of the future and then work to make sure that that vision becomes a reality.”
Wilma Mankiller lived by this quote, always pushing to make issues of the Cherokee tribe of central concern, and using that awareness to make change. We as a society need to continue this work today, learning the history of our nation, the history of Native American people.
On April 6, 2010 Wilma Mankiller passed away at the age of 64 but her legacy will forever live on.
Happy Birthday Wilma Mankiller!