Former Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller grew up in one of the poorest counties in the United States. But poverty, being Cherokee and a woman did not stop her for doing the right thing for her people and becoming one of the most well-known women in U.S. history.
Mankiller passed away from cancer in 2010 but her legacy lives on.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. visited with guests and introduced “Mankiller: Activist. Feminist. Cherokee Chief,” a documentary about the life of Mankiller, during an event at the Bartlesville Public Library.
“The fact the library wants to show the movie speaks a lot about the community,” Hoskin said.
He said the standard is Mankiller for all chiefs to live up to. Her work for Cherokees began even before she became chief, he said.
Hoskin was elected to serve as the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation last year and has served as the Tribe’s Secretary of State and as a member of the Council of the Cherokee Nation, representing District 11.
“Mankiller: Activist. Feminist . Cherokee Chief” is a documentary by filmmakers Gale Anne Hurd and Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, which aired nationwide on PBS. The film portrays Mankiller’s life story, from when she was active in San Francisco’s civil rights movement to her return to Oklahoma to become the first woman to be elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
“I truly believe we can learn rich and valuable lessons from her story and her legacy,” said Director and Co-producer Red-Horse Mohl. “I see this film as so much more than a biography; I believe it actually is a wakeup call. Wilma lived her life with the philosophy of ‘Ga-Dugi,’ which translated means ‘in a good way’ – and our goal is that we embody ‘Ga-Dugi’ on this project to honor her.”
Mankiller was born in Mankiller Flats near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, but as a child was moved with her family to California as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Relocation program.
“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,” wrote Mankiller in her book, “A Chief and Her People.”
In 1971 Mankiller’s father died from a kidney disease in San Francisco, which she said “tore through my spirit like a blade of lightning.”
The family took Charlie Mankiller home to Oklahoma for burial, and then Mankiller returned to California. It was not long before she too had kidney problems, inherited from her father. Her early kidney problems could be treated, though eventually she had to have a transplant. Her brother Donald became her “hero” by donating one of his kidneys so that she could live.
According to biographical information in the Encyclopedia of World Biographies, Mankiller’s concern for Native American issues ignited in 1969 when members of AIM (American Indian Movement) occupied Alcatraz Island to attract attention to issues affecting their tribes.
The “invasion” of Alcatraz by the Native Americans quickly became a focal point for many Native people, Mankiller included. Because of the bold move onto Alcatraz by San Francisco State student and Mohawk Richard Oakes, along with his “All Tribes” group, Mankiller realized that her mission in life was to serve her people.
She yearned for independence, something that 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 divorced her husband, by whom she had two daughters, and moved back to Oklahoma for good. She found a job as a community coordinator in the Cherokee tribal headquarters and enrolled in graduate courses at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
This required her to drive a long distance every day. She was returning home one morning in 1979 when a car approached her on a blind curve and, out of nowhere, another car attempted to pass it. She swerved to miss the approaching car but failed. The vehicles collided almost head-on.
Mankiller was seriously injured, and many thought she would not survive. The driver of the other automobile did not. It turned out to be Sherry Morris, Mankiller’s best friend.
Mankiller had to overcome both her physical injuries and the guilt she experienced after the accident. Then in 1980 she came down with myasthenia gravis, a muscle disease. Again her life was threatened, but her will to live and her determination to heal her body with the power of her mind prevailed.
In 1985, she became the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the first female in modern history to lead a major Native American tribe. She was reelected in 1991, but resigned her position in 1995 for health reasons. Mankiller’s numerous awards include: Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame, 1986; Woman of the Year, Ms. magazine, 1987; John W. Gardner Leadership Award, Independent Sector, 1988; National Women’s Hall of Fame, 1993.
She married her second husband, Charlie Soap, in 1986.
Gloria Steinem, political activist and journalist, became friends with Mankiller through a nonprofit organization.
The two women fought side by side on many issues, including American Indian and women’s rights, according to an article in The Oklahoman in 2010.
“She was always inclusive and she personified the balance between men and women,” Steinem said. “She saw people as equal.”
Mankiller’s biggest contribution was that she could show political and social causes were connected and many issues were one in the same, she said in the newspaper article.
“Her gift was to create independence, not dependence,” Steinem said.
Wilma paved a way for all young women, not just Cherokee women, she said.