Activist, Tribal Chief, And Tribal Legislator

Activist, Tribal Chief, And Tribal Legislator

Written on 05/01/2022

Wilma Mankiller was the first woman to serve as chief of the Cherokee Nation and she fought for the rights of women and Native Americans.

In 1983 Ross Swimmer, then principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma asked Mankiller to be his deputy chief in the election. While campaigning she was surprised by the criticism she received—not for her stand on any particular issue, but simply because she was a woman. Swimmer and Mankiller won the election and took office in August. On December 5, 1985, Swimmer was nominated to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. Mankiller was sworn in to replace him as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. She focused on education and health care, overseeing the construction of new schools, job-training centers, and health clinics.

Mankiller overcame many tragedies to become a guiding power for the Cherokee people of Oklahoma and a symbol of achievement for women everywhere. Throughout her life, Mankiller has managed to not complain about how bad things were for herself, for her people, and for Native Americans in general. She instead has worked to help make life better. Although she declined to seek another term as principal chief in 1995 for health reasons, she remains in the public eye, writing and giving lectures across the country. She has stressed that if all the Native Americans who were eligible to vote actually did so, officials elected with those votes would be forced to address the problems of Native Americans. She also has called for an end to the increasing problem of violence against women. Mankiller was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame in New York City in 1994 and was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998.

“If I had one word to frame her, it would be patriot. A patriot is one who gives her all for her people.” Gloria Steinem spoke at her memorial service.

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