Wilma Mankiller fought stereotypes and sexism to help thousands of Cherokee people access healthcare, housing, education, and justice.

As she walked to school in Tahlequah, Okla., Wilma Mankiller was occasionally given clothing by well-dressed white women, who cast looks of pity on the young Cherokee girl as they drove away. But even at that young age, Mankiller knew that this kind of charity, which was steeped in classism and misunderstanding, was not what she and her family needed. 

The Cherokee community she knew was self-sufficient and strong, which kept its culture alive by speaking the Cherokee language and participating in traditions like ceremonial dance. Mankiller especially loved going to the Stomp Ground to watch her father and other men from their tribe dance around a large fire, kindled from flames that generations of Cherokees had kept burning since well before European settlers arrived. 

Mankiller’s father also took pride in supporting his family through farming. Yet it was difficult to grow much on the rocky plains of rural Oklahoma, where the U.S. government had forced 16,000 Cherokees to relocate in the 1830s. During this migration on the Trail of Tears, a fourth of the Native Americans died from famine and disease. 

In 1956, when Mankiller was 11, her father took part in a government-sponsored relocation program that promised a more prosperous life for their family. The real program goal, however, was to encourage the assimilation of Native Americans into mainstream American society by moving them to cities. Mankiller, her parents, and her nine siblings were moved thousands of miles away to a housing project in a poverty-stricken part of San Francisco. Instead of a chance to prosper, the family now found themselves with few resources in an unfamiliar place. 

Even at 11 years old, Mankiller realized the similarities between her family’s own circumstances and those of her ancestors, whose culture and lives had been devalued by an oppressive U.S. government. She called the journey to San Francisco her family’s “own Trail of Tears,” and she struggled to adjust to her new surroundings. 

Wilma Mankiller. Courtesy of the National Women's History Museum.

But in 1960s San Francisco, then a hotbed of countercultural activism, Mankiller learned firsthand how minority communities like hers could organize to fight oppression and take care of each other. She was especially drawn to the work of the Black Panthers, who, along with their political activism, organized to provide breakfasts to African American youth and senior citizens in the Bay Area. Mankiller started working at the San Francisco Indian Center, building community and provided access to needed resources.  

Soon after graduating high school in 1963, Mankiller married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi, an Ecuadorian college student she had met at a dance that summer, and gave birth to two daughters: Felicia, and then Gina a year later.  

Creating community on Alcatraz Island

Mankiller’s lifelong call to activism was spurred on Nov. 20, 1969, when a group of 89 men, women, and children calling themselves Indians of All Tribes sailed under cover of darkness to Alcatraz Island, then a defunct prison, in the San Francisco Bay. Upon arrival, the group claimed the island for all the tribes of North America and spray painted its buildings and rocks with messages including “Home of the Free Indian Land.” They claimed Alcatraz belonged to them and asked to buy it for $24—the amount that colonists had paid Native Americans for the island of Manhattan. 

The group said they intended to build an Indian school, cultural center, and museum during their occupation of the island. Refusing to cede Alcatraz, President Richard Nixon sent diplomatic missions to the island to convince the occupants to give up their cause. But the group refused to budge; they created a governing council, and soon built a clinic, kitchen, school, and even a radio station

The Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz lasted 19 months. At its height, over 1,000 people joined, while celebrities and world leaders expressed solidarity with the cause. Mankiller, along with four of her siblings, joined the occupation and while she didn’t stay overnight, she frequently shuttled supplies and visitors between the island and the American Indian Center. 

“Throughout the Alcatraz experience and afterward, I met so many people from other tribes who had a major and enduring effects on me,” she wrote in her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. “They changed how I perceived myself as a woman and as a Cherokee.”

Mankiller also gained a sense of pride and self-respect from partaking in Alcatraz organizing efforts. She enrolled at San Francisco State University and took classes on social welfare. She also took her daughters to tribal events and helped the Pit River Tribe build a legal defense fund to support their fight to be compensated for illegally-seized lands. 

In 1974, she became director of the Native American Youth Center in Oakland, and enlisted volunteers to help create educational programs that taught young tribe members about their heritage. After divorcing Olaya, she became a social worker for indigenous youth, lead research efforts on child abuse and neglect, and worked to create laws preventing children from being removed from their culture. Her work helped form the basis of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which strengthened the tribal government’s role in custody cases involving Native American children—who, at the time, were often forcibly removed from their homes and placed with non-Native families.  

A message to Native American activists on Alcatraz Island.

Facing obstacles and renewed sense of purpose

Mankiller loved her work in the Bay Area, but also missed home. In 1977, she moved back to Oklahoma with her daughters and found a job as an economic stimulus coordinator in the Cherokee tribal offices.  

Mankiller would face two traumatic events within her first two years of leaving the Bay Area. First, a car accident in 1979 took the life of her best friend and Mankiller had 17 operations as a result. She was then diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a chronic neuromuscular disease that made it hard for her to grip objects and speak clearly.

But Mankiller didn’t spend time feeling sorry for herself. “I thought a lot about what I wanted to do with my life,” Mankiller said of her time in recovery. “The reality of how precious life is enabled me to begin projects I couldn’t have otherwise tackled.”  

Bringing water to Bell—and building a name for herself 

Mankiller soon found her first big project in the majority Cherokee town of Bell, Okla.—a town so poor that most residents lacked running water. 

As a tribal government representative, Mankiller had a hard time earning the trust of residents. Yet Mankiller and the townspeople eventually worked together to lay 16 miles of pipe for a community water system, which brought water to their town for the first time.

“I banked everything I ever believed on that project. Even when people were saying ‘those people aren’t going to show up…they aren’t going to volunteer to build their own water line in the middle of the summer, middle of the winter. And I just knew they would,” Mankiller said. 

By coming together as a community to solve their own water needs, the residents of Bell had shown the tribal government what self-empowerment could do for the Cherokee nation. Mankiller took this self-improvement approach to other communities and raised millions of dollars for development projects. She was so successful that, in 1983, Cherokee Tribal Chief Ross Swimmer asked her to be his running mate in the upcoming tribal election.  

Mankiller faced backlash for entering the race. Although women held key roles in Cherokee society, which is matrilineal, there wasn’t a tradition of elected female leadership in the tribal government. Mankiller was surprised at the sexism and violence, which included slashed tires and death threats, but she stayed in the race.

“I thought my activist background would be an issue. I thought the fact that I spent a lot of years in California then return to Rural Eastern Oklahoma would be an issue. The only issue in ’83 was my being female,” Mankiller said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. 

Swimmer and Mankiller won by a small margin. But even though Mankiller now held one of the most powerful positions in the Cherokee Nation, deputy chief of the lawmaking Tribal Council, the sexism didn’t stop. One of male members of the Council kept interrupting Mankiller during sessions—until she solved the problem by turning off his microphone. 

Mankiller was determined not to let anything keep her from helping her people. She worked with the Council to increase representation of smaller, rural areas, giving a voice to Cherokees from places that, like Bell, were often forgotten. 

Empowering the Cherokee Nation as chief 

In 1985, just two years into his term, Principal Chief Swimmer was tapped to help lead the U.S. Government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. He accepted, and stepped down from his position as Principal Chief.  

Mankiller became the first female principal chief—the highest position in the Cherokee Nation— and used her status to bring attention to the Nation. She discussed the deep respect Cherokees have for the environment and the importance of women within the tribe; she also aimed to improve healthcare and housing for members of the Cherokee Nation. Mankiller’s work and new title catapulted her to fame; popular magazines such as People and Ms. featured her in interviews, and she was named American Indian Woman of the Year in 1985 by the Oklahoma Federation of Indian Women. 

But Mankiller was far from being done. While battling sexist critics and a kidney disease that left her hospitalized just before the election, Mankiller ran for principal chief in 1987 and won.  

As principal chief, Mankiller expanded community development programs and kept an important jobs center open in Tahlequah, Okla. that had been slated to close. She also helped increase training and resources for tribal members who wanted to open businesses.  

Mankiller used federal funds to build new clinics, train doctors, and eventually expand the Cherokee healthcare system into the largest tribal healthcare provider in the nation. She also created adult and early childhood education programs.  

Some tribal leaders criticized Mankiller for focusing on social programs instead of economic growth, but Mankiller didn’t see it that way. “In order to have good economic development, you have to emphasize education and have an educated populace,” she said in the documentary Mankiller. “You have to have well people.”  

During her second term as principal chief, Mankiller created a mentorship program for Cherokee girls, and pushed to uphold the rigorous standards for tribal membership. In 1994 President Bill Clinton chose Mankiller to lead the Nation-to-Nation Summit, which brought together leaders from hundreds of tribes in the United States to talk about issues impacting their people. 

To Mankiller, taking on these leadership roles felt like an extension of her Cherokee roots. 

“When I first ran for election as deputy principal chief in 1983, it seemed the strong role of women in Cherokee life had been forgotten by some of our own people. I vividly remember a man standing up in a campaign meeting and telling me, ‘Cherokee Nation will be the laughingstock of all the tribes if we elect a woman,’” she told Ms. magazine.

Wilma Mankiller receives the Medal of Honor from President Bill Clinton.

Instead, the Cherokee Nation became even more powerful under Mankiller’s leadership, rising to 170,000 people in her third term.  

While battling lymphoma in 1995, Mankiller decided not to seek reelection. Even as her political career ended, Mankiller kept fighting for the Cherokee people and Native Americans in general. She went on a national lecture tour and spoke about healthcare, women’s rights, and other issues critical to the Cherokee Nation. She wrote and contributed to numerous books about women’s issues and tribal history. In 1998, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest national honor a civilian can receive in the United States.  

Mankiller succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2010, but her legacy lives on through the foundation created in her name and through the work of those continuing to fight for the Cherokee Nation.  

Despite her myriad accomplishments, Mankiller remained humble throughout her life. “I’m a pretty ordinary person given an opportunity to do extraordinary things in my life,” she once said. 

Katie Hunter is a freelance writer and educator who lives in Oakland, Calif. Along with Boundless, she writes for the Bold Italic, Broke-Ass Stuart, and other travel and culture-focused publications. (You can check out her work here.) Katie especially loves telling the stories of women who have made our world a better place. When she’s not writing, you can find her hiking in the Bay Area, cooking Thai food, or volunteering at her local cat shelter.