Wilma Mankiller, First Female Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation


Wilma Mankiller’s Childhood and Early Activism

Wilma Mankiller was the first woman to serve as Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation, serving from 1985-1995. Originally stepping in to replace the previous chief, she won her official election by a margin of eighty percent.

She became an activist at a young age, after her family was relocated from Oklahoma to San Francisco as a result of the Indian Relocation Act at eleven years old. She participated in the Occupation of Alcatraz Island, where a group of Native Americans occupied the abandoned Alcatraz Island with the goal of getting the United States to honor a treaty promising abandoned federal buildings to Native Americans. Growing up displaced inspired her to stand up for others, and she became a social worker and moved back to Oklahoma.


Wilma Mankiller’s Accomplishments as Chief

As a Chief, Wilma used her social worker background to advocate for Cherokee Nation. She led the Bell Waterline Project, which brought running water to her community. She also opened multiple health centers in her rural area and started a drug prevention program.

In 1990, she used signed the biggest agreement between Cherokee Nation and the United States government. As a result of the agreement, the Bureau of Indian Affairs surrendered millions of dollars of federal funding back to tribal control.

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 1998. The Wilma Mankiller Foundation continues to provide sustainable food projects, including a working teaching farm, which provides fresh foods to Cherokee communities in food deserts.