Episode 30: Wilma Mankiller Women’s Series

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Photo credit – U.S. Mint

Episode 30:  Wilma Mankiller US Mint Women’s Quarter Series

Notable Facts:

  • First female Deputy Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
  • First female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. 
  • First woman elected as chief of a major Native tribe.

Early Life:

  • Wilma was born on November 18, 1945, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, also known as the capital of the Cherokee Nation.
  • She was the sixth of eleven children born to Charley Mankiller and Clara Irene Sitton. Her father was full blood Cherokee and her mother was of Dutch and Irish descent.
  • In the Cherokee language, the surname “Mankiller,” refers to a traditional high military ranking that would have been achieved by one of her ancestors.
  • In the 1830s, Wilma’s ancestors were forced to leave their homeland in Tennessee and traveled via the Trail of Tears into Indian Territory. Her family settled in what is now modern day Oklahoma. 
  • It is here that Wilma grew up, spending her earliest years on her grandfather’s farm, on land that was granted to her family as part of a government settlement. In this rural area, resources were limited. Wilma’s family home had no electricity, indoor plumbing, or telephones.
  • In the mid-1950s, when Wilma was about 10-11 years old, her family’s land was devastated by a drought. As a result of this, the family was moved to San Francisco, California as part of a Bureau of Indian Affairs’ relocation policy. This policy aimed to move Indians off of federally subsidized lands with the promise of jobs in the city.
  • Wilma referred to this move as her “own little trail of tears,” as it took her away from her family’s tribe and her childhood home. 
  • Following this move, she experienced culture shock, poverty, and racism. At the same time she also became exposed to the powerful impacts of social activism.
  • In 1969, she watched a group of American Indians take over the federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. During this 19-month long protest, the Native Americans laid claim to the island by ‘right of discovery’ in an effort to expose the suffering of American Indians. 
  • Wilma later recalled this event stating, “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.” 
  • Following this event, Wilma began her work, striving to empower Native communities and improve their lives.

Native Work:

  • In 1977, Wilma returned to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and founded the Community Development Department for the Cherokee Nation. This organization focused on improving access to water and housing. 
  • Her first and most famous project under this organization took place in Bell, Oklahoma, a small Cherokee community with no running water. Her efforts here led to the construction of a 16-mile waterline. This project is documented in the film, The Cherokee Word for Water (which was directed by her husband and community development partner of 30 years, Charlie Soap).
  • In 1983, Wilma was named running mate to Principal Chief Ross Swimmer during his bid for reelection as Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Despite rampant sexism, including death threats, they won the election, making Wilma the first woman elected deputy chief. 
  • Two years later, in 1985, Chief Swimmer resigned to lead the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, leaving Wilma in charge as principal chief, the first woman to ever hold the position. She would go on to be reelected as chief in 1987 and, again, in 1991 (winning by a landslide with over 80% of votes). 
  • During this time, she tripled her tribe’s enrollment, doubled employment, and built new housing, health centers, and children’s programs in northeast Oklahoma. Under her leadership, infant mortality declined and educational levels rose. 
  • In 1990, she signed a historic self-determination agreement in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs surrendered direct control over millions of dollars in federal funding to the tribe. This allowed her to fund several projects, including the development of a comprehensive health care system for her people, which is said to have been something that she was particularly proud of.
  • She also helped establish the Office of Tribal Justice in the U.S. Department of Justice (a dedicated point of contact for Indian country-specific legal and policy matters) and helped found the Women Empowering Women for Indigenous Nations.
  • Wilma retired from her political career in 1995, but continued to play an active role in the Native community – writing, speaking, and teaching about American Indian culture.


  • She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, the highest honor given to civilians in the United States. 
  • She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
  • She was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1994.
  • She served on several philanthropic boards, including 12 years on the board of trustees of the Ford Foundation, and the boards of Ms. Foundation for Women, the Seventh Generation Fund and The Freedom Forum. 
  • She held more than a dozen honorary doctorates from universities including Yale, Dartmouth and Smith College.

Other Facts:

  • She has two daughters with her first husband, Hector Hugo, whom she was married to for approximately 11 years.
  • She remarried in 1986 to Charlie Soap, a Cherokee, whom she met while working in Bell, OK. They remained married until her death in 2010.
  • She died on April 6, 2010 at the age of 64 from pancreatic cancer. 

Quotes/Thoughts on Native People:

  • “When given the resources and the opportunity, tradition-oriented Cherokee people will help each other and take on projects for the larger community good. Gadugi, or working collectively for the common good, is an abiding attribute of Cherokee culture.”
  • “We are a revitalized tribe – After every major upheaval, we have been able to gather together as a people and rebuild a community and a government. Individually and collectively, Cherokee people possess an extraordinary ability to face down adversity and continue moving forward. We are able to do that because our culture, though certainly diminished, has sustained us since time immemorial. The Cherokee culture is a well-kept secret.”

Possible Interviews:

  • The Wilma Mankiller Foundation – This foundation was established and funded by the Tulsa Community Foundation in 2010, after Wilma’s passing.
    • “​​The Wilma Mankiller Foundation works with indigenous communities to carry on Wilma Mankiller’s legacy of social justice and community development in Indian Country and beyond. The mission of the Foundation is to support and promote culturally appropriate media, community and economic development projects, and to advance educational and women’s leadership opportunities for Native people.”
    • This seems like it would be the best organization to reach out to, however, their website is a bit outdated, so I’m not sure how active they currently are:
  • The Cherokee Word for Water – A video project led by the Wilma Mankiller Foundation. 
    • “The Cherokee Word for Water is a feature-length motion picture that tells the story of the work that led Wilma Mankiller to become the first modern female Chief of the Cherokee Nation.”
    • Their website is also a bit outdated, but they are actively posting on Facebook, so they may be easier to get in touch with.
  • Tulsa Community Foundation – The Wilma Mankiller Foundation is a fund of the Tulsa Community Foundation, so they also may be able to put you in touch with the right people for an interview.




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