Wilma P. Mankiller: First Woman Chief of an American-Indian Nation


Wilma P. Mankiller: First Woman Chief of an American-Indian Nation

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Wilma P. Mankiller: First Woman Chief of an American-Indian Nation

By Joyce Furstenau

The Cherokee are an important tribe of Native Americans that live in the area

around Oklahoma. Many years ago the person in charge of protecting a Cherokee

village was given the name Mankiller. Wilma Mankiller was born in Tahlequah,

Oklahoma, in 1943. She lived on the Cherokee reservation. For the first ten years of

her life, she had no indoor plumbing or electricity.

The government moved Wilma's family to San Francisco in 1953. They wanted to

move Indians from their remote villages into larger cities. The move was an eye

opening experience for Wilma. She had never seen television, elevators, bicycles, or

indoor toilets. She also had never been exposed to prejudice. Wilma saw signs in

restaurants that said, "No dogs. No Indians." She was unhappy at school. Wilma was

teased and bullied because of her name and her heritage. She felt very isolated in her

new community. She ran away from home several times. She began to use her fists

to defend herself.

By the time she was seventeen, Wilma was married. She spent the next few years

raising her two daughters. In 1969 a group of Native Americans occupied Alcatraz

Island, which was a former prison site in the San Francisco Bay area. They wanted to bring attention to the poor

treatment of Indians. Wilma became interested in this movement.

She participated in the "occupation" of Alcatraz. When it was over, she continued to participate in other Indian

demonstrations. She became active in the Native American community in San Francisco. She helped to build a

school and an Indian Adult Education center there.

Wilma was a natural leader. She was proud of her Cherokee heritage. She began to use her skills to help her own

people. She returned to Bell, Oklahoma, in 1977 and began working for the Cherokee Nation. She started a new

program to help her people called the Cherokee Community Development Department. In 1981, she became its

director. Under her leadership, the city's water system was completely overhauled. This change brought the town

of Bell into the twentieth century.

All Native American tribes in the U.S. have a leader, or chief. In 1983, all of them were men. That year, Cherokee

Chief, Ross Swimmer, asked Wilma Mankiller to run for the office of Deputy Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Many

people in her tribe did not want a woman as deputy chief. Wilma received death threats and her tires were slashed.

She did not give up. She won the election. Wilma worked alongside Chief Swimmer four years. It took a long time

before her own people accepted a woman in the role of deputy chief.

Ross Swimmer took a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1987. Wilma Mankiller filled in for him as

principal chief until it was time for elections. That fall, she was elected as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

This election made her the first female ever elected as principal chief of an Indian nation.

As Chief, Wilma continued to improve the economy of her tribe. She founded the Cherokee Nation Community

Development Department. She also brought new life to Sequoyah High School.

Her election brought attention to the Cherokee tribe. Her new programs began to revitalize the Cherokee Nation.

She obtained several government grants to help bring changes to her struggling community. Even though she

began having health problems, Wilma continued to work on community projects. In 1986, Wilma Mankiller

became American Indian Woman of the Year. She has written several books about her life and the life of the

Cherokee people.

In 1990, Oklahoma State University honored her with the Henry G. Bennett Distinguished Service Award. Wilma

Mankiller retired from her position in 1995 due to poor health. In 1998, President Clinton awarded her the

Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Wilma Mankiller will always be a hero to her

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Wilma P. Mankiller: First Woman Chief of an American-Indian Nation


1. To what Native American tribe does Ms. Mankiller belong?

A. Navaho

B. Cherokee

C. Yakama

D. Arapaho

2. Why did Wilma move to San Francisco in 1953?

A. Her parents wanted to live near the ocean.

B. Her father got a job there.

C. Her parents thought the schools were better there.

D. The government relocated her family there.

3. How old was Wilma when she got married?

A. fifteen

B. twenty-one

C. twenty

D. seventeen

4. What event led Wilma to become involved in Indian affairs?

A. the occupation of Alcatraz Island

B. the war in Viet Nam

C. the election of John F. Kennedy

D. the French and Indian War

5. What is Wilma Mankiller famous for?

A. She was the first woman chief of an American Indian nation.

B. She was the first woman governor.

C. She was the first woman elected to office.

D. She was the person who protected the village.

6. What was our nation's highest civilian honor given to Wilma Mankiller?

A. a Nobel Prize

B. the Purple Heart

C. the Presidential Medal of Freedom

D. a gold star

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