Wilma Mankiller Biography

I was recently gifted with the loan of a book from my friend Lee Knight titled “Wilma Mankiller,” (TWODOT Books, 2021) written by journalist and biographer D.J. Herda. As a traveling lecturer for the Road Scholar Program, Lee had finished reading it and thought I might find it interesting.

I had read, some years ago, Wilma Mankiller’s autobiography and found it fascinating. But Herda’s biography on the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation was perhaps even better due to its objective and historic perspective and its point of view. Oh, and incidentally, it’s a national bestseller.

The life of Wilma Mankiller is as fascinating as it is remarkable. She was born into a racially-mixed community in southern Georgia and as a toddler moved to the Cherokee reservation in Talequah, Oklahoma, with her family, spent her teens and early twenties in San Francisco and moved back to Talequah as a young adult where she spent the remainder of her life. As a person who didn’t like school early on with all the rote memorization and what she considered unimportant subject matter, she was and remained for most of her life someone who was self-taught and on a quest as a young person to, as she put it, “do what you do best.”

And what she did best, starting in the 1960s and 1970s, was to learn from her elders and others who were considered to be leaders and activists, which included such people that were part of the American Indian Movement (AIM) as Dennis Banks, Russell Means, Clyde Bellecourt, Leonard Crow Dog, Richard Oakes and John Trudell. She participated in AIM meetings and later in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island in the San Francsico Bay. During those formative years in the 1970s, she also worked for the San Francisco Indian Center, the Native American Youth Center, the Pitt River Land Case while auditing history and law classes at San Francisco State University. While having a rough introduction to city life on the West Coast, she adapted and made the most of her years there.

Exploring the life of Cherokee’s first female chief

As Herda explains: “‘The Center,’ as it was called, was a place for Indians from all tribes to call their home away from home. Everyone who went there shared at least some life experiences; some shared nearly all. Here, Wilma started to feel the strength of the pull of the bonds that had existed between herself and other Cherokee people for centuries — their mutual history, experiences, and traditions.”

Or, in her own words and as is quoted by Herda in the “Wilma Mankiller” biography: “When the Alcatraz occupation occurred, I became aware of what needed to be done to let the rest of the world know that Indians had rights, too. Alcatraz articulated my own feelings about being an Indian.”

From Me to We

Wilma Mankiller returned to Oklahoma in 1977. From her experiences on the West Coast and her new understandings and passions, she began work for social programs and positions in Cherokee tribal government which lasted for about 10 years. From elders and spiritual teachers she learned and adopted “a Cherokee approach” to life. “They say that this means being of good mind,” as Herda writes. “That means one has to think positively, to take what is handed out and turn it into a better path.”

And this is just the approach Wilma Mankiller took. She married Charlie Soap, a Cherokee traditionalist, who would remain her supportive and faithful husband for the rest of her life, and in 1987 she decided to run for and was elected tribal chief of the Cherokee Nation; the first woman in Cherokee history to have been honored with this position. As Principal Chief, she said she wanted to be remembered for being fortunate enough to have become her tribe’s first female chief and for emphasizing the fact that Native Americans have indigenous solutions to their own problems by helping one another and of their interconnectedness with the land and to “hold on to our language, our ceremonies, our culture.”

The remaining 80 pages of the book is an homage to Mankiller’s long list of accomplishments, accolades and awards. During her 10 years as tribal chief, she met with three presidents, lobbied Congress for everything from health clinics to the national Head Start programs, and received more awards than most people could imagine. In 1996 she decided to step down from her position due mainly to serious health problems that would plague her for the rest of her life. In that same year, she accepted a prestigous Fellowship at Dartmouth College; and in 1998 she was honored at the White House by President Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. More honors came her way as the years went by until her early demise in 2008.

As the book’s author Herda summarizes toward the end of the book: “Life to Wilma Mankiller was precious, but not so much as what she did with it. Living for the sake of breathing and taking up space was not her idea of living. Within her own ranks and social hierarchy, she was a mover and a shaker, a doer and a leader. She was and always would be, first and foremost, a chief.” In 1993 Wilma Mankiller cited a Native American prophecy, saying “this is the ‘time of the women,’ a time when women’s leadership skills are needed.” In the words of her longtime good friend and feminist Gloria Steinem: “Wilma Mankiller was a fighter for freedom and justice. There is simply no other, no better way to describe her. And for that she will always be appreciated, lauded, revered and remembered.”

(Thomas Crowe is a regular contributer to The Smoky Mountain News and author of the multi-award-winning non-fiction nature memoir “Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods.”)

Wilma Mankiller is sworn into office as Deputy Chief in 1983.

Wilma Mankiller is sworn into office as Deputy Chief in 1983.

Wilma Mankiller Foundation

Wilma Mankiller reads to young students.

Wilma Mankiller reads to young students.

Wilma Mankiller Foundation

Wilma Mankiller and colleagues hold ceremonial shovels.

Wilma Mankiller and colleagues hold ceremonial shovels at the ground-breaking of the Wilma P. Mankiller Health Center.

Wilma Mankiller Foundation

Wilma Mankiller is sworn into office as Principal Chief in 1987.

Wilma Mankiller is sworn into office as Principal Chief in 1987. From left: Wilma Pearl Mankiller, Charlie Soap (Wilma’s husband) and then-Chief Justice of the Cherokee Nation, Philip Viles.

Wilma Mankiller Foundation

Wilma Mankiller

Red-Horse Native Productions, Inc./Valhalla Entertainment

On location, the "Mankiller" documentary crew interviews Felicia Olaya, Wilma's daughter.

On location, the “Mankiller” documentary crew interviews Felicia Olaya, Wilma’s daughter, at the Mankiller home in Oklahoma.

On location in Oklahoma, the "Mankiller" documentary crew interviews Chad Smith.

On location in Oklahoma, the “Mankiller” documentary crew interviews Chad Smith, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

On location in Oklahoma, the "Mankiller" documentary crew interviews Mark Downing.

On location in Oklahoma, the “Mankiller” documentary crew interviews Mark Downing, a former staff member of Wilma Mankiller’s.

On location in San Francisco, the "Mankiller" documentary crew interviews Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz.

On location in San Francisco, the “Mankiller” documentary crew interviews Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz.

Community Reviews

“Wilma Mankiller represents the best of what a leader can be.”

She empowered, believed in, advocated for, and helped people.Prior to reading this picture book I knew little about Wilma Mankiller, but now I am inspired to learn more, and to follow her leadership example. “Wilma Mankiller represents the best of what a leader can be.”

She empowered, believed in, advocated for, and helped people.Prior to reading this picture book I knew little about Wilma Mankiller, but now I am inspired to learn more, and to follow her leadership example. . more

Wilma Pearl Mankiller, born in Oklahoma in 1945 of mixed parents, was an activist, social worker, community developer and the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Wilma did not grow up in Oklahoma; in 1956 the federal government moved her family to San Francisco as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program. The family did not want to leave but had no choice. Wilma, mocked at school for her name and her background, kept running away, until finally Wilma Pearl Mankiller, born in Oklahoma in 1945 of mixed parents, was an activist, social worker, community developer and the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Wilma did not grow up in Oklahoma; in 1956 the federal government moved her family to San Francisco as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program. The family did not want to leave but had no choice. Wilma, mocked at school for her name and her background, kept running away, until finally her parents sent her to live on a farm with her maternal grandfather. She married at 18, had two children, and started college. She also got involved in Native American politics, to the displeasure of her husband. They divorced, and she took her daughters with her back to Oklahoma. She built a home on her ancestral land and went to work for the Cherokee Nation government.

In 1979, Wilma survived a near-fatal auto accident requiring seventeen operations and donated kidneys. Eighteen months later she returned to work at a job developing projects to help rural Cherokee communities. She let the residents define their own needs, only advising them how to go about meeting them. As Doreen Rappaport observed in an Author’s Note at the end of the book:

“Wilma Mankiller represents the best of what a leader can be – she respected people and trusted that, regardless of their economic circumstances, they were capable of solving their problems and figuring out what needed to be done to change and better their lives.”

In 1983, Cherokee Chief Ross Swimmer asked Wilma to run with him as his Deputy Chief in the election for leadership of the Cherokee Nation. They won, and when Chief Swimmer left in 1985 to work in Washington, Wilma became the first female Principle Chief of the modern Cherokee Nation, the second largest tribe in the United States. Two years later she ran on her own and succeeded against stiff opposition. She said:

“Prior to my election, young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up to be chief.”

She accomplished a great deal, including, although it is not mentioned in the book, her 1990 signing of an unprecedented Cherokee Nation self-determination agreement with the federal government. This agreement gave the Nation control of its funding, programs and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Sadly, she suffered an early death in 2010 at age 64. But, the author writes, Wilma showed, in her own words:

“Women can help turn the world right side up. We bring a more collaborative approach to government.”

The book concludes with an Author’s Note, Illustrator’s Note, a timeline of events in Wilma’s life, a brief pronunciation guide and selected references.

Illustrator Linda Kukuk, a native Oklahoman of Choctaw ancestry, uses bright and detailed watercolors to depict Wilma’s life. She describes the research she did to make sure her artwork reflected the true spirit of Wilma Mankiller, observing: “Without fail, every person I spoke with who had known Wilma thought of themselves as her ‘best’ friend. To me, that shows the warmth of character she possessed.”

Evaluation: Doreen Rappaport is one of my favorite authors for kids. She focuses on people who exhibited courage and took chances in life, helping kids see the possibilities in their own lives. She also incorporates many of her subjects’ own words into her text. Her books not only entertain, but inspire and challenge. . more

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