Wilma Mankiller, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, lives on the land which was allotted to her paternal grandfather, John Mankiller, just after Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Surrounded by the Cherokee Hills and the Cookson Hills, she lives in a historically rich area where a person's worth is not determined by the size of their bank account or portfolio. Her family name "Mankiller" as far as they can determine, is an old military title that was given to the person in charge of protecting the village. As the leader of the Cherokee people she represented the second largest tribe in the United States, the largest being the Dine (Navajo) Tribe. Mankiller was the first female in modern history to lead a major Native American tribe. With an enrolled population of over 140,000, and an annual budget of more than $75 million, and more than 1,200 employees spread over 7,000 square miles, her task may have been equalled to that of a chief executive officer of a major corporation.
Initially, Wilma's candidacy was opposed by those not wishing to be led by a woman. Her tires were slashed and there were death threats during her campaign. But now as Wilma shares her home with her husband, Charlie Soap, and Winterhawk, his son from a previous marriage, things are very different. She has won the respect of the Cherokee Nation, and made an impact on the culture as she has focused on her mission - to bring self-sufficiency to her people.
"Prior to my election, " says Mankiller, "young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up and become chief." Mankiller had been asked by Ross Swimmer, then President of a small bank, who assumed leadership of the Cherokee Nation in 1975. He convinced Mankiller to run as his deputy chief. They won. In 1985, Swimmer resigned as chief to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Cherokee law mandated that the deputy chief assume the duties of the former chief.
In the historic tribal elections of 1987, Mankiller won the post out-right and brought unprecedented attention to the tribe as a result. "We are a revitalized tribe," said Mankiller,"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. This Cherokee culture is a well-kept secret."
Mankiller attibutes her understanding of her peoples history partially to her own families forced removal, as part of the government's Indian relocation policy, to California when she was a young girl . Her concern for Native American issues was ignited in 1969 when a group of university students occupied Alcatraz Island in order to attract attention to the issues affecting their tribes. Shortly afterwards, she began working in preschool and adult education programs in the Pit River Tribe of California.
In 1974, she divorced her husband after eleven years of marriage when their views of her role continued to widen. She moved back to her ancestral lands outside of Tahlequah, and immediately began helping her people by procuring grants enabling them to launch critical rural programs. In 1979 she enrolled in the nearby University of Arkansas, and upon returning home from class was almost killed in a head-on collision in which one of her best friends who had been driving the other car, was killed. After barely avoiding the amputation of her right leg, she endured another seventeen operations. Mankiller says that it was during the long process that she really began reevaluating her life and it proved to be a time of deep spiritual awakening.
Then in 1980, just a year after the accident, she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a chronic neuromuscular disease that causes varying degrees of weakness in the voluntary muscles of the body. She maintains that it was the realization of how precious life is that spurred her to begin projects for her people, such as the Bell project where members of the community revitalized a whole community themselves.
It was the success of the Bell project that thrust Mankiller into national recognition as an expert in community development. The election to deputy chief did not come until two years later. In 1986, Wilma married long time friend and former director of tribal development, Charlie Soap. Mankiller's love of family and community became a source of strength when again a life threatening illness struck. Recurring kidney problems forced Mankiller to have a kidney transplant, her brother Don Mankiller served as the donor. During her convalescence, she had many long talks with her family, and it was decided that she would run again for Chief in order to complete the many community projects she had begun.
She has shown in her typically exuberant way that not only can Native Americans learn a lot from the whites, but that whites can learn from native people. Understanding the interconnectedness of all things, many whites are beginning to understand the value of native wisdom, culture and spirituality. Spirituality is then key to the public and private life of Wilma Mankiller who has indeed become known not only for her community leadership but also for her spiritual presence. A woman rabbi who is the head of a large synagogue in New York commented that Mankiller was a significant spiritual force in the nation.