Name at birth: Wilma Pearl MankillerWilma Mankiller was the first woman to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, a post she held from 1985 until 1995. Mankiller was born on Cherokee land in Oklahoma, but her family was moved by the U.S. government to San Francisco and she was thrust into a modern urban environment. She married in 1963 and had two daughters, but the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans sparked her activism. She visited the occupiers and supported them by fundraising. After a divorce in 1977, Mankiller moved back to Oklahoma and got involved in community organizing. A serious auto accident killed her friend and seriously injured Mankiller in 1979, an incident she credited with changing her life. Dedicated to learning about community development, she earned a Bachelor’s Degree and jumped into work for the Cherokee Nation. Mankiller became the director of the Nation’s Community Development Department in 1981 and was chosen in 1983 to be Deputy to Principal Chief Ross Swimmer. When Swimmer resigned in 1985, Mankiller became Principal Chief, the first woman in the post. She barely won the election in her own right in 1987, but easily won re-election in 1991 with more than 80% of the vote. By the time Mankiller left her position as Chief, she was admired and respected for having managed the business affairs of the Cherokee Nation and for leading a dramatic increase in membership. Over the years Mankiller overcame several serious health issues and thrived despite them, but died of pancreatic cancer when she was 64.
Wilma Mankiller married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi, an Ecuadorean, in 1963, and they were divorced in 1974. They had two daughters: Felicia (born in 1964) and Gina (b. 1966)… In 2022, Wilma Mankiller became one of the first five women to be featured on a U.S. quarter as part of the American Women Quarters series.
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