Wilma Mankiller

Lived:November 18, 1945—April 6, 2010 (aged 64)
Career:Principal chief of the Cherokee Nation,1985-1995
Deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation, 1983-1985
Education:Bachelor's, Flaming Rainbow University

Wilma Pearl Mankiller was the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, serving as principal chief from 1985 to 1995. She is the author of a national-bestselling autobiography, "Mankiller: A Chief and Her People," and co-author of "Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women."

Mankiller was born November 18, 1945, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Her father was full-blooded Cherokee and her mother was Caucasian of Dutch and Irish descent. She spent her early childhood on a 160-acre tract known as Mankiller Flats near Rocky Mountain, Oklahoma, given to her grandfather as part of a settlement the federal government made for forcing the Cherokee to move to Oklahoma from their tribal lands in the Carolinas and Georgia in the 1830s. In 1956, the family left Oklahoma under the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Indian Relocation Program, moving to San Francisco and later to Daly City, California.

At age 17, Mankiller married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi, an Ecuadorian college student. They moved to Oakland and had two daughters. Mankiller became involved in San Francisco’s Indian Center, participating in the Occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969 and volunteering for the Pit River Tribe. She returned to school, taking night courses at Skyline College and San Francisco State University while working as a coordinator of Indian programs for the Oakland public schools. After her marriage ended, Mankiller moved back to Oklahoma with her daughters in 1977. She volunteered in tribal affairs, lead campaigns for new health and school programs, and worked as the director of community development for the Cherokee Nation. She earned a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from Flaming Rainbow University in Stilwell, Oklahoma, and took graduate courses in community planning at the University of Arkansas.

In 1981, Mankiller founded the community development department of the Cherokee Nation and, as its director, helped develop rural water systems and rehabilitate housing. In 1983, she was selected by the tribe’s principal chief, Ross Swimmer, as his running mate in his re-election campaign, and with their victory, became the first woman to become deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation. In 1985, Chief Swimmer resigned when appointed as assistant secretary of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Mankiller succeeded him. She was elected in her own campaign in 1987 and re-elected again in 1991. In 1995, she chose not to run again due to health problems.

Mankiller married Charlie Lee Soap, a full-blood Cherokee traditionalist and fluent Cherokee speaker, in 1986, and they lived on Mankiller's ancestral land at Mankiller Flats. After her term as chief, she became a guest professor at Dartmouth College, In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Medal of Freedom. She died of pancreatic cancer on April 6, 2010.