Birthday: November 18, 1945
Died At Age: 64
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Also Known As: Wilma Pearl Mankiller
Born Country: United States
Born in: Tahlequah, Oklahoma, United States
Famous as: Chief
Spouse/Ex-: Charlie Soap (m. 1986), Hector Hugo (m. 1963–1977)
father: Charley Mankiller
mother: Clara Irene Sitton
children: Felicia Olaya, Gina Olaya
Died on: April 6, 2010
place of death: Adair, Oklahoma, United States
Cause of Death: Pancreatic Cancer
U.S. State: Oklahoma
education: San Francisco State University, University Of Arkansas, Skyline College
awards: Presidential Medal of Freedom
Who was Wilma Mankiller?
Wilma Mankiller was a Native American activist, community developer, and social worker from the Cherokee community. She was the first woman to be elected as the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. She was born in Oklahoma, to a Cherokee father and a Dutch–Irish immigrant mother. Her huge family, consisting of 10 siblings, survived in extreme poverty. She attended school at Rocky Mountain but had very little formal education. In 1955, a severe drought caused calamity in the area where she lived. Following this, under the ‘Indian Relocation Act’ of 1956, the family settled in San Francisco. After graduating high school, Wilma worked as a clerk in a financing firm. She began her journey in activism in 1964, after she got involved in the “Occupation of Alcatraz” movement. In the early 1970s, she worked as a social worker for Cherokee people, mainly working toward children’s issues. In the early 1980s, she was hired as the director of the ‘Community Development Department’ of the Cherokee Nation. In 1985, she was appointed as the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and continued serving in the position until 1995. She mostly worked for the welfare of her people. She was later honored with a ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom.’
Childhood & Early Life
Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born on November 18, 1945, at the ‘Hastings Indian Hospital’ in Oklahoma. She was the sixth child of her parents, Clara and Charley Mankiller. She belonged to the Cherokee community, one of the many Native American communities left in the U.S.A. Her father was a full-blooded Cherokee, while her mother was an immigrant with Dutch and Irish ancestry.
Wilma and her family lived in the Adair County, Oklahoma. She grew up in a huge family and had 10 siblings. Her parents were financially weak, and the family lived amidst extreme poverty. Their house had no plumbing or electricity. The family grew peanuts and strawberries to sell them in the markets. In addition, the family was dependent on fishing and growing vegetables to feed themselves.
Wilma attended a small school in Rocky Mountain. It had only three classrooms. She studied there until fifth grade. It is believed, Wilma and her siblings used flour sacks as clothes.
They spoke English and Cherokee. Despite the fact that they had adopted Catholicism, they were wary of the whites and did not attend churches. They participated in their own tribal gatherings instead.
In 1955, a severe drought attacked the place where they lived. It became extremely difficult for the family to survive amidst such terrible conditions. Under the ‘Indian Relocation Act’ of 1956, Wilma’s family was to be relocated to an urban area, for them to get enough opportunities to uplift themselves. They moved to San Francisco. There, her brother and father were given jobs. However, the family still did not have enough to lead a comfortable life.
Wilma joined a local school, where she was bullied due to her unusual surname. She dropped out of school because of this reason and later ran away to live with her grandmother in Riverbank. After a while, she went back to her parents with a little more confidence and started devoting more time to Indian activities. She graduated high school in 1963.
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Soon after graduating high school, she began working at a finance company. She began her stint with social activism in the 1960s.
She always wanted to become involved in the social activities concerning the Native American people. She finally found an opportunity to do so in the 1960s, motivated by the Native American people’s attempts to reclaim the Island of Alcatraz.
She later joined the Pit River tribe in their struggle to acquire the lands and compensations that were promised to them. Hence, by the early 1970s, she had become largely involved in social activism. She began working with the Cherokee Nation, focusing on children’s welfare.
In 1976, she returned to her native state of Oklahoma and joined the Cherokee Nation full-time, working as an economic stimulus controller. She also worked as a grant writer and continued to work hard to acquire more positions in the Cherokee Nation.
In the early 1980s, she received a big promotion when she was appointed as the director of the ‘Community Development Department’ of the Cherokee Nation. Using her experience in documentation, she began working toward acquiring funds from the government.
She also designed and developed many community projects that allowed people to identify their own issues and work to solve them. Her projects in Kenwood and Bell became hugely popular and received attention from the media, too. Her work also earned her a ‘Certificate of National Merit’ from the ‘Department of Housing and Urban Development.’
The news about her competitiveness and dedication reached the then-chief of the Cherokee Nation, Ross Swimmer, who invited her to work as his deputy for the tribal elections of 1983. Ross won the elections. Thus, Wilma became the first-ever female candidate to assume the position of the deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Two years later, the post of the chief was left vacant when Ross began working at the ‘Bureau of Indian Affairs.’ Hence, Wilma became the new chief. With this, she became the first woman to attain the top-most position of the Cherokee Nation.
As a candidate for the ‘Democratic Party,’ she took over as the chief in 1985 and continued working in the position until 1995. During her tenure, she worked hard to help the people of her community. She opened clinics, early-education centers, job training programs, adult education programs, and many other programs and initiatives that helped a great deal in making her people largely self-sufficient.
She also provided jobs to many Cherokee people by opening factories, restaurants, retail stores, and bingo operations. One of her key areas of work was self-governance, which allowed the people of her community to devise their own ways of making money.
She worked tirelessly to improve the image of Native Americans and severely attacked the misappropriation of the native tribal heritage in the American society. In 1995, she officially resigned from her position as the chief and also retired from active politics.
However, she continued working as an activist even after resigning from her position. She later wrote her autobiography, ‘Mankiller: A Chief and Her People.’ The book was a huge success.
Her activism spanning decades was honored with many awards, such as the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom,’ the highest American civilian honor.
Family, Personal Life & Death
Wilma Mankiller married Hector Hugo Olaya in 1963. They had two daughters together: Felicia and Gina. The couple divorced in 1974.
In 1986, Wilma married Charlie Soap.
Throughout her life, Wilma suffered from various health issues, such as polycystic kidney disease, myasthenia gravis, and lymphoma. She had two kidney transplants, too.
In March 2010, Charlie told the public and the media that she had been suffering from pancreatic cancer. She passed away on April 6, 2010, at the age of 64.