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Wilma Mankiller was an advocate for women’s and Indigenous people’s rights. Her passion led the local activist to become the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and the first woman elected as chief of a major Native tribe.
This story was produced by Olivia Riçhard. Sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Nicole Haroutunian and edited by Abby Sher. Our narrator was Katie Anvil Rich. A special thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible!
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Wilma Mankiller loved the wide open skies of Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Growing up there, she spent hours and hours chasing her siblings through the tall grasses near her home, the leaves tickling her bare toes. When evening came, they skipped after fireflies that winked like dancing stars in the inky night sky overhead.
Wilma was the sixth out of eleven kids in her family. Growing up, they were always outside, laughing and playing together. When it was time to wind down for bed, Wilma’s father entertained the kids with traditional Cherokee stories. They didn’t have a television—they didn’t even have electricity or running water. But Wilma never felt like she was missing out because they had family, community, and love.
All that changed for Wilma when she was eleven years old though. The United States government told Wilma’s father they’d give him a good job if he relocated his family about 2000 miles away in San Francisco. It was so hard to leave their tribal lands, but Wilma’s dad really needed a job, so they packed up and left. But when they got to San Francisco, things did not get any easier for Wilma.
It was a very hard time for Wilma and her family. Their new home was very small. There was so much noise from all the cars and there were no fireflies or stars at night. Wilma missed the whisper of trees and the cool grass beneath her feet.
The first day at her new school made Wilma feel even worse. The halls were loud, full of unfamiliar faces. When the teacher announced her name, Wilma held her breath. She wanted to say that Mankiller was a traditional Cherokee name and that she was proud of it. But before she could speak, everyone burst into laughter.
Wilma felt her whole body get hot with anger and hurt. She covered her face to hide the warm tears in her eyes. The Cherokee people, including her own ancestors, had once been driven from their homelands by the U.S. government, as part of a forced exodus known as the Trail of Tears. Wilma felt like she had to blink back her own tears now.
It took a while, but Wilma did make friends in California who appreciated her and her Cherokee heritage. One day when she was a teenager, she heard that Indigenous people were holding a special gathering out on the island of Alcatraz. Four of Wilma’s brothers and sisters were going and asked her to join them and bring supplies. So, Wilma gathered snacks and water and took a boat out to the island. The wind blew her hair out behind her and seagulls cawed. Up ahead, Alcatraz rose out of the choppy water with a big fortress-looking building perched in the middle which turned out to be a former prison. A group called Indians of All Nations were occupying the island, claiming it for Indigenous people who had been forced from their homelands by the United States government. Wilma wasn’t sure what to expect as she stepped off the boat onto the island. Suddenly, she was surrounded by music, singing, talking and dancing. As she walked, she heard snippets of what they were saying:
“We need to hold on to the old ways.” True, thought Wilma. Our traditions go back to the beginning of time!
“We are honoring Native people. We haven’t gone away—we’re still here.” Yeah, thought Wilma—that’s right! And we should be in charge of our own destinies.
She felt energized; inspired. The people here were saying things that she’d been feeling ever since her family was relocated. She was so excited by the sense of community here. Wilma came back to the island many times over the next year, joining forces with Indians of all Nations, sharing dreams, songs and plans to stand up for the rights of Indigenous people everywhere. She was thrilled to be representing her Cherokee heritage.
For the next seven years years, Wilma dedicated herself to empowering Indigenous people in California. But she still missed her home state of Oklahoma. So when she was 32 years old she decided to return there with her daughters to live on the land once owned by her grandfather. Wilma got a job with the Cherokee government and went to work in a tiny town called Bell. Bell was really struggling. The town had very little electricity,and sometimes it was hard for people to find jobs. When she got there, Wilma saw a man walking down a dirt road carrying a fishing pole and pail.. She waved at him, but he didn’t wave back.
That’s weird, she thought. Then she saw a group of kids playing with wooden toys. She picked up a little doll and did a funny voice, but the kids didn’t laugh. When she approached a young mother to talk about building a school, the mother kept her lips shut. This place reminded Wilma so much of where she grew up, but she felt like an outsider. Wilma was confused. Didn’t they know she just wanted to help?
A local Cherokee speaker named Charlie Soap told her that the people in Bell had a hard time trusting anyone who said they worked for the “government.” So many people in Bell had lost homes, loved ones and memories because of promises broken by the U.S. government. But Wilma was here to work for the Cherokee people!
How can I earn their trust? she asked.
Charlie said that would be tough. especially since she hadn‘t grown up in Bell.
“You’ve got to change the way you’re thinking!” Wilma told him, determined to prove him wrong.
Charlie wondered who on earth this woman was. But he was intrigued by her passion. He offered to help. Together, they talked to the people of Bell and found out what they wanted most from the government. Running water.
It wasn’t too long before Wilma stood on the dusty streets of Bell, waving her arms to welcome large flatbed trucks piled high with aqua-blue pipes. The workers who brought in the pipes unloaded them, and then left!
Who’s going to install the pipes? the people of Bell wondered.
We are! explained Wilma. And we’ll do it together!
Wilma picked up a shovel. The whole community—young, old, men, women, and children—picked up shovels, too. Soon, dirt flew through the air and piled up waist high. It took over a year, but they kept at it. Under the beating sun of summer and the cold winds of winter, they dug trenches and installed the sixteen miles of pipeline. And when it was done, the sound of running water brought cheers and celebration.
See? thought Wilma, proudly. All we need are the resources and we can do anything!
Wilma spent many years fighting for change in Oklahoma, and in 1983, the Cherokee Principal Chief Ross Swimmer asked Wilma to run for Deputy Chief. This was a huge honor. If she won, she’d be the first woman to ever hold that office and she’d be able to get more resources for the Cherokee nation. Wilma was very excited to start campaigning.
But people weren’t as supportive as she’d hoped. One day, after a campaign event, Wilma stood in front of her car, shaking her head. It looked like someone had slashed her tire, and it was flat as a pancake.
Wilma sighed and called her friend Charlie to come pick her up and…to bring a spare tire.
Another one? he asked. Are you sure you want to keep this up?
Of course! Wilma said.
Wilma kept campaigning, no matter how she was treated. She believed in a “Cherokee approach” to life, which meant she tried to think positively. She knew she had a lot to contribute to her people. Charlie admired this about her. In fact, they soon got married and started a family of their own.
And when election night came, all of Wilma’s hard work paid off. Chief Swimmer won reelection and Wilma became the first female Deputy Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Wilma was elated. She didn’t stop to celebrate the historic moment for too long, though—she couldn’t wait to get to work.
One of her first duties as Deputy Chief was to attend a special meeting with the leaders of four other tribes. Chief Swimmer couldn’t make it, so Wilma went alone to represent the Cherokee people. She was thrilled to be walking into the room with these influential people and was brimming with exciting ideas to discuss. When she tugged open the heavy door to the boardroom where the meeting was taking place, the scent of the plush leather chairs around the table filled her nose. The room even smelled important.
Wilma smiled to greet everyone, thinking in the back of her mind that it was a little odd that they were already sitting there and seemed to be discussing business, even though she was just arriving. Then it hit her: all the chairs were full. They’d left her out on purpose. But Wilma had a policy not to argue with people who were acting foolishly, so she simply turned on her heel, left the room, and reappeared a moment later, dragging a chair from an empty room nearby. She pulled it up to the table and confidently sat down. It was as if she were saying, if there isn’t a seat at the table for me, I’ll bring my own.