In 1983, Wilma Mankiller was elected the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation – the first woman ever to serve as chief of a major Native American tribe. Her last name, Mankiller derives from the high military rank achieved by a Cherokee ancestor.
Born in Oklahoma, the sixth of eleven children in 1945, her family was relocated to San Francisco in 1956 as part of the Federal Relocation Act to move Indians off reservations and into large cities. In 1977 she moved back to Oklahoma with her two daughters and became active in the Cherokee community.
During her 10 years in office she reinvigorated the Cherokee Nation with community development projects and helped establish tribally owned businesses. Promoting the necessity of retaining Cherokee traditions by creating the Institute for Cherokee Literacy, Wilma also transformed the relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the US federal government.
Wilma became close friends with feminist Gloria Steinem, who noted, “as long as people like Wilma Mankiller carry the flame within them, centuries of ignorance and genocide can’t extinguish the human spirit.”
She was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.