Tahlequah, OK

Wilma Mankiller: Chief of the Cherokee and Fighter for Community Empowerment

Debbie Walker

She was an activist, advocate, and warrior.


Photo by PBS.org

She was an activist, advocate, and warrior.

Wilma Mankiller is a name most all native Oklahomans recognize. She blossomed from a little girl in poverty to Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, the second-largest tribe in the United States.

I remember hearing the name, Mankiller, in the news about the work she achieved in the Nation as an activist, promoting self-determinism, and Chief. However, controversy swirled around her from the election as the first female Chief to the expulsion of the descendants of the Freedmen from the tribe.


Mankiller, born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1945, was given the Cherokee name, A-ji-luhsgi, meaning flower. However, I believe she lived her life according to her Mankiller surname, which is a Cherokee warrior rank equivalent to a captain or major.

Mankiller’s family moved to California as part of the Federal Government’s attempt to urbanize Native people in the 1950s. Growing up in the activist movements of the 60s, Mankiller became involved in the Occupation of Alcatraz and other struggles for the appropriation of Native land rights.

Mankiller, along with other college students, began protesting for the civil rights of minorities and women. She became involved in the American Indian Movement (AIM) based in the San Francisco Indian Center, of which she was the director.

The Alcatraz Occupation inspired her to advocate for Native civil rights through fundraising and grassroots work of gathering supplies for the protesters on the island. At some point, Mankiller participated in the early activities of the Black Panthers feeding and assisting elders.

In the 1970s, Mankiller campaigned for compensation to the Pit River Tribe for lands seized illegally during the California Gold Rush. There she became adept at international and treaty law.


Eventually, Mankiller moved back to Oklahoma to help the Native communities. She believed, if provided the resources, Native people could prosper.

For example, she and her colleague, Charlie Soap, chose a small community, Bell, Oklahoma, to build a water line for the residents who had no running water. Mankiller believed the people would build the water-line themselves, which they did. Men, women, and children.

She brought hope that Native people could determine their own future. She planted seeds that, like her name implied, flowered into hope.

In 2018, PBS made several short documentaries about Wilma Mankiller and her work. They capture the essence of her spirit and message — that Native people don’t have to remain in marginalized poverty. Building their own water lines and hospitals gave them a sense of both their individual and collective power. She did not take NO for an answer!


However, Wilma Mankiller’s legacy is not without controversy. In her belief to retain the Cherokee people’s identity, she expelled the descendants of the Freedmen’s tribal membership.

This seemed in direct contrast to Wilma’s earlier activism. But she and others felt that to be Cherokee, one had to have Cherokee blood. Let me explain.

Historically, many Cherokee members fought with the Confederates and were slave owners. Consequently, African-American slaves came over the Trail of Tears with their Cherokee owners.

After Emancipation, the Federal Government took a census of tribe members, blood and adopted, dividing them into two groups, Native and the Freedmen. In the efforts of self-determinism, Mankiller expelled 2,800 tribe members descended from the freed slaves because they carried no Indian blood.

They denied the expelled people food assistance and housing under the amended Cherokee constitution. It is a source of conflict today.

They were not the only tribe to do so. In 2000, the Seminole tribe also expelled 2000 Freedmen from their tribe. It is now the policy of all the Five Civilized Tribes — Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole to do the same.

Principal Chief

In 1985, the people elected Wilma Mankiller as Principal Chief of the Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. However, she was shocked when she encountered blatant sexism among the male tribal members.

Mankiller received death threats, had her tires slashed and had a billboard likeness burned. This seemed strange since Cherokee society is organized matrilineally.

Cherokee women have their own tribal council and are responsible for training chiefs. They wield considerable influence in tribal matters.

Wilma Mankiller remained steadfast and took her stance as a warrior for the Cherokee people. She brought economic development, education, and housing opportunities to her nation.

I know that is a fact because my daughter-in-law is one-half Cherokee and the tribe is going to build her a house. Among other benefits, she and my grandkids receive free health care. I believe our government could learn a thing or two about the success of the Cherokee Nation.

From one little flower who became a warrior.

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