An activist a day: Wilma Mankiller

(because I missed a day)

Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010)

Wilma Mankiller was the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. She works to improve the lives of Native Americans by helping them receive better education and health care and urges them to preserve and take pride in their traditions.

Early life

Wilma Mankiller was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, on November 18, 1945. Her father was Charlie Mankiller, a Cherokee, and her mother was Irene Mankiller, who was of Dutch-Irish ancestry. Wilma has four sisters and six brothers. Her great-grandfather was one of the more than sixteen thousand Native Americans and African slaves who were ordered by President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) to walk from their former homes in the Southeast to new “Indian territory” in Oklahoma in the 1830s. The harsh weather, hunger, disease, and abuse from U.S. soldiers that the walkers experienced on what came to be called the Trail of Tears led to the deaths of at least four thousand of them.

The Mankillers were very poor in Oklahoma. Charlie Mankiller thought he could make a better life for them in California and accepted a government offer to relocate. However, promises that were made to the family were not kept, money did not arrive, and there was often no employment available, so their life did not improve after their arrival in San Francisco. The children were also homesick. As Mankiller recalled in her autobiography, called Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, “I experienced my own Trail of Tears when I was a young girl. No one pointed a gun at me or at

members of my family. No show of force was used. It was not necessary. Nevertheless, the United States government, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was again trying to settle the ‘Indian problem’ by removal. I learned through this ordeal about the fear and anguish that occur when you give up your home, your community, and everything you have ever known to move far away to a strange place. I cried for days, not unlike the children who had stumbled down the Trail of Tears so many years before. I wept tears … tears from my history, from my tribe’s past. They were Cherokee tears.”

Political awakening

Mankiller finished high school and took a job as a clerk. She met and married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi in 1963, and they had two daughters. Wilma settled into the role of wife and mother. This was a time when there were many political and social movements taking place across America. In 1969 her life was changed. San Francisco State student and Mohawk Richard Oakes (1942–1972), along with other Native Americans of different tribes, occupied an abandoned prison on Alcatraz island in the San Francisco Bay to call attention to the mistreatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government. The invasion was seen as a historic event by many Native American people, Mankiller included. “When Alcatraz 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 [expressed] my own feelings about being an Indian,” Mankiller stated in her autobiography. She began a commitment to serve the Native American people to the best of her ability in the area of law and legal defense.

In addition to wanting to help her people, Mankiller began to desire independence, and she began taking courses at a community college and later at San Francisco State. This caused a conflict with her marriage. “Once I began to become more independent, more active with school and in the community, it became increasingly difficult to keep my marriage together. Before that, Hugo had viewed me as someone he had rescued from a very bad life,” she noted in her autobiography. In 1974 she was divorced and became a single head of the household.