Wilma Mankiller was the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation and a prolific writer, speaker, and thinker. She was committed to decolonized tribal health care and education and spent her 10 years as Chief raising funds for both causes. Under her leadership, enrollment in schools rose to 3 times its original number for Cherokee youth. She was also a strong advocate for Indigenous equality in the eyes of the Federal Government; as such, she met with three separate U.S. Presidents advocating for Indigenous Rights and an end to discriminatory policies, land grabs and pollution, and laws negatively impacting the bodily integrity of women and girls. Her radical praxis led her to participate in the historic take over of Alcaltraz to force a national level discussion about discrimination against and marginalization of Indigenous peoples in N. America and to eschew big casino building and smoke shops for the building of schools and hospitals when she was tribal leader. In the early 80s she founded the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department to help members of the Cherokee Nation become self-sufficient in issues of housing and access to clean water. In the early 90s, her work alongside then-Navajo Nation President Zah, helped create the Office of Indian Justice in the Department of Justice in D.C. to better help address ongoing inequality of Indigenous peoples in the U.S.
She was also an inspiration to women and girls. Her first attempt to be elected as Chief of the Cherokee Nation was met with public sexism questioning her ability to lead. Sexist jokes about her last name dogged her campaign and her leadership. Yet she never faltered. Though she lost her original bid, she met the sexism head on and eventually became the first female leader. She used her own struggle to inspire her own two daughters and other Cherokee women to reach for whatever they wanted in life. In writing her biography, she hoped not only to address Indigenous identity but also to encourage other women and girls to take leadership roles and stand up for their rights. In speaking about her commitment to women and girls she said:
“I try to encourage young women to be willing to take risks, to stand up for the things they believe in, and to step up and accept the challenge of serving in leadership roles.”
She also wrote or co-authored two other books in the field of Women’s Studies: Every Day is a Good Day and The Reader’s Companion to the History of Women. The former edited volume included the accessible reflections by 19 Indigenous women activists about gender justice, spirituality, equality, sovereignty, etc. It hoped to weave Indigenous women’s voices back into feminist discourse as well as general discussion of identity without creating a space so steeped in theory as to be inaccessible. The latter, edited along with noted feminists like Barbara Smith, and mainstream feminists like Gloria Steinem, was a broad reader meant to be accessible to middle school through life long learners. The Companion centered both activism and multiculturalism, including stories from over 300 activists addressing issues as widespread as Asian picture brides, lynching activism, and the rise in Orthodox Jewish feminism. It also included a wide array of articles addressing feminism from multiple perspectives rather than simply offering up a watered down, hipster, or mainstream perspective to the exclusion of all of the dynamic definitions and praxis at play. The mammoth books is best as supplemental reading for middle and high school history books but definitely a starting point for people who have never received a more multicultural look at feminist history, or any feminist history (you know beyond 1990 w/ a few references to the 1970s) at all.
In 1987 she was Mrs Magazines Woman of the Year for her commitment and in 1998 then-President Clinton awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her longstanding activism on behalf of Indigenous people in U.S.
Like so many activist feminists of color, Wilma Mankiller died yesterday morning from complications related to cancer. Despite the occasional controversies related to her leadership (including the failure to include black Cherokees as full members of the nation), she will be sorely missed.