Wilma Mankiller

Cherokee Chief, Activist, Community Organizer, Feminist

Wilma Mankiller at White House, Medal of Freedom ceremony, 1998
Wilma Mankiller at White House, Medal of Freedom ceremony, 1998. Diana Walker/Getty Images

Wilma Mankiller Facts

Known for: first woman elected chief of the Cherokee Nation

Dates: November 18, 1945 - April 6, 2010
Occupation: activist, writer, community organizer
Also known as: Wilma Pearl Mankiller

A biography by About.com's Native American History Expert Dino Gilio-Whitaker: Wilma Mankiller

Also: Quotes from Wilma Mankiller

About Wilma Mankiller

Born in Oklahoma, Mankiller's father was of Cherokee ancestry and her mother of Irish and Dutch ancestry.

She was one of eleven siblings. Her great-grandfather was one of the 16,000 who had been removed to Oklahoma in the 1830s in what has been called the Trail of Tears.

The Mankiller family moved from Mankiller Flts to San Francisco in the 1950s when a drought forced them to leave their farm. She began attending college in California, where she met Hector Olaya, whom she married when she was eighteen. They had two daughters. At college, Wilma Mankiller was becoming involved in the movement for Native American rights, particularly in raising funds for activists who had taken over Alcatraz prison, and also became involved in the women's movement.

After completing her degree and getting a divorce from her husband, Wilma Mankiller returned to Oklahoma. Pursuing more education, she was injured on the drive from the University in an accident that injured her so seriously that it was not certain she would survive.

The other driver was a close friend. She then was striken for a time with myasthenia gravia.

Wilma Mankiller became a community organizer for the Cherokee Nation, and was notable for her ability to win grants. She won an election as Deputy Chief of the 70,000 member Nation in 1983, and replaced the Principal Chief in 1985 when he resigned to take a federal position.

She was elected in her own right in 1987 -- the first woman to hold that position. She was re-elected again in 1991.

In her position as chief, Wilma Mankiller oversaw both social welfare programs and tribal business interests, and served as a cultural leader.

She was named Ms. Magazine's Woman of the Year in 1987 for her achievements. In 1998, President Clinton awarded Wilma Mankiller the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to civilians in the United States.

In 1990, Wilma Mankiller's kidney problems, likely inherited from her father who died of kidney disease, led to her brother donating a kidney to her.

Wilma Mankiller continued in her position as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation until 1995 During those years, she also served on the board of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and wrote fiction.

Having survived several serious illnesses, including kidney disease, lymphoma and myasthenia gravis, and a major automobile accident earlier in her life, Mankiller was stricken with pancreatic cancer, and died April 6, 2010. Her friend, Gloria Steinem, had excused herself from participation in a women's studies conference to be with Mankiller in her illness.

Family, Background:

  • Mother: Irene Mankiller
  • Father: Charlie Mankiller
  • Siblings: four sisters, six brothers

Education:

  • Skyline College, 1973
  • San Francisco State College, 1973-1975
  • Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities, B.A., 1977
  • University of Arkansas, 1979

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi (married November, 1963, divorced 1975; accountant)
  • children:
    • Felicia Marie Olaya, born 1964
    • Gina Irene Olaya, born 1966
  • husband: Charlie Soap (married October 1986; rural development organizer)

Religion: "Personal"

Organizations: Cherokee Nation

Books About Wilma Mankiller:

  • Wilma Mankiller. Mankiller: A Chief and Her People. 1993.
  • co-editor: The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History, 1998.