The powerful, visionary first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller spent her formative years in San Francisco, where she learned about the women’s movement and organizing. When she returned to her native Oklahoma, Mankiller used her skills to help the Cherokee Nation, starting community self-help programs and teaching people ways out of poverty. In 1983 she ran for deputy chief of the Nation, and in 1985 Mankiller became Principal Chief.
Mankiller brought about important strides for the Cherokees, including improved health care, education, utilities management and tribal government. She was instrumental in attracting higher-paying industry to the area, improving adult literacy, supporting women returning to school and more. Mankiller also lived in the larger world, active in civil rights matters, lobbying the federal government and supporting women’s activities and issues. She said: “We’ve had daunting problems in many critical areas, but I believe in the old Cherokee injunction to ‘be of a good mind.’ Today it’s called positive thinking.” Mankiller was instrumental in establishing the Nation to Nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the Federal Government. Her many honors included the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, and Ms. Magazine’s Woman of the Year.