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Get to Know the First Female Cherokee Chief, Wilma Mankiller

Get to Know the First Female Cherokee Chief, Wilma Mankiller

On November 18, 1945, Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller was born.

Though the name "Mankiller" comes from tribal military rank, it nonetheless suits her role as an advocate for Native American women, and as the first woman to be named Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

As a young girl, Mankiller's family was forced to move to San Francisco as part of a relocation policy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Its aim was to move Indians off federally subsidized reservations with the promise of jobs in some of America's big cities, according to The New York Times.

Inspired by demonstrators who took over Alcatraz to call attention to the government's treatment of Native Americans, she proceeded to make their advocacy a bigger part of her life.

She moved to Oklahoma — home to the Cherokee Nation — and began volunteering in tribal affairs and leading campaigns for new health, school, community self-help programs, and women's rights initiatives.

Once she landed a job as economic stimulus coordinator for the Cherokee Nation, she founded their community development department and helped to develop rural water systems and rehabilitate housing.

After becoming first female deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation, her legacy continued when she was elected principal chief in 1987, and served until 1995.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Mankiller the Medal of Freedom —the nation’s highest civilian honor. She was also inducted into National Women's Hall of Fame.

When she passed in 2010 from pancreatic cancer, she was remembered and praised for her tenacity, strength, and leadership for Native Americans and women.

"We are better people and a stronger tribal nation because of her example of Cherokee leadership, statesmanship, humility, grace, determination and decisiveness," Chad Smith, the Cherokees' principal chief, said in a statement on the tribe's website. "When we become disheartened, we will be inspired by remembering how Wilma proceeded undaunted through so many trials and tribulations."

NEXT: The Medal of Freedom List: MAKERS Who Have Received the Honor Since 1993 »

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Photo Credit: Getty Images