First Woman Chief of the Cherokee Nation
1945 – 2010
Wilma Mankiller has the honor of being the first female in modern history to lead a major Native American Tribe. In 1987 she was elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the second largest tribe of Native Americans in the United States, with a population of over 140,000 and an annual budget of more than $75 million.
Wilma was born a member of the Cherokee Nation on Cherokee land allotted to her paternal grandfather, John Mankiller, just after Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Her family name, “Mankiller” is thought to be title of respect given to the person in charge of protecting the village. Wilma, however, spent her formative years in San Francisco. As a young girl her family was forced off their land in Oklahoma and relocated to California. Her concern for Native American issues was fanned into a flame while she was in San Francisco where she learned much about organizing movements from her work in the women’s movement. As an adult, Wilma returned to her native Oklahoma, using her skills to help the Cherokee Nation. She founded community self-help programs that taught the people ways out of poverty.
In 1983, Wilma ran for deputy chief of the Nation along side of Ross Swimmer, then President of a small bank who assumed leadership of the Cherokee Nation in 1975. In 1985 Swimmer resigned as Principal Chief to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs and in Wilma Mankiller became Principal Chief, by mandate of Cherokee law. The tribal elections in 1987 were historic. Her candidacy was opposed by many who didn’t want to be led by a woman and as a result her tires were slashed and her life was threatened many times during her campaign. Though she did confront strong opposition, Wilma won the post of Principal Chief and as a result of brought unprecedented attention to the tribe. Wilma served as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation for 8 years until she resigned from her post in 1995 due to poor health. During her term as chief, Wilma was a valuable spokesperson in Washington, working for health care programs, and fighting for the rights of children.
Wilma Mankiller has spent her life working tirelessly for the advancement of the Cherokee Nation. She has led the nation in making important strides in improved health care, education, utilities management, and tribal government and she strove to attract higher-paying industry to the area, improve adult literacy, and encourage higher education of Cherokee women.