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Sherman Alexie | John Bennett Herrington | Lionel Bordeaux | Naomi Lang | Wilma Mankiller | Ben Nighthorse Campbell | Ben Reifel

Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller became the first woman elected as the principal chief of the Cherokee nation. She was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the sixth of eleven children. Her name Mankiller derives from the high military rank achieved by a Cherokee ancestor. When she was ten years old her family relocated to San Francisco, California.

In California, Mankiller graduated from high school, married and had two children. She studied sociology and went to work as a social worker. In 1969 she became active in the Native American Rights movement when the American Indian Movement (AIM) and other activists occupied Alcatraz. In 1974 after divorcing her husband, Mankiller and her two daughters returned to her home in Tahlequah. She started working for the Cherokee nation while attending college. During this time, she was severely injured in a car crash that took the life of her best friend. 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. Despite all these challenges Mankiller managed to complete a master’s degree in Community Planning at the University of Arkansas.

In 1983 she won election as deputy principal Cherokee chief and when the principal chief Ross Swimmer became head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1985, Mankiller succeeded him as principal chief. She won in her own right two years later. By 1992 she received 82% of the vote.

Her administration focused on the high unemployment rate and low levels of education on the reservation, and improving community health care and developing the economy of northeastern Oklahoma. She spent much of her time writing grants for health and education programs, including the Cherokee Home Health Agency and Head Start. She also created the Institute for Cherokee Literacy.

In 1995 Mankiller was diagnosed with lymphoma and chose not to run for reelection. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and in 1998 President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Metal of Freedom.