Monday, October 11, 2010

Wilma Mankiller

Today's AWESOME WOMAN is Wilma Mankiller (November 18, 1945 – April 6, 2010), American Indian activist and chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995. Mankiller grew up with her 10 siblings on a land allotment in Oklahoma, in squalid poverty.

In the 1960s Mankiller lived in Oakland, California, with her husband, had two daughters, and attended college. In 1969 she joined the Native American activist movement and participated in the 19-month-long occupation of Alcatraz Island. The stated intention of the Occupation was to gain Indian control over the island for the purpose of building a center for Native American Studies, an American Indian spiritual center, an ecology center, and an American Indian Museum. After the occupation was forcibly ended by the U.S. Government, Mankiller volunteered for five years for the Pit River Tribe.

In 1977, Mankiller divorced her husband and moved back to Oklahoma with her daughters, in hopes of helping her own people and began an entry-level job for the Cherokee Nation. By 1983, she was elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation, and when the chief took a position in Washington D.C. in 1985, she became the first woman to assume the role of Chief of the Cherokees.

Contrary to the traditional inclusion of women in tribal leadership, the Cherokee nation at the time was a very male-dominated power structure. Wilma Mankiller worked within that structure to achieve great progress for the tribe. She spearheaded community development projects such as tribally owned horticultural operations, plants that got defense department contracts, and building a hydroelectric facility. She leveraged U.S. policies to gain every possible advantage for her tribe, and paved the way for the government-to-government relationship the Cherokee Nation has with the U.S. Federal government. During her 10-year stint as Chief, she created reasons for Cherokee people to rejoin their Nation, and increased the population from 55,000 to 156,000.

Mankiller lived through a near-fatal car accident and multiple grave health problems. Largely due to health reasons she resigned as Chief in 1995 and became a teacher at Dartmouth College. Upon her passing in April, 2010 from pancreatic cancer, President Obama said:

"I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Wilma Mankiller today. As the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, she transformed the Nation-to-Nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the Federal Government, and served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she was recognized for her vision and commitment to a brighter future for all Americans. Her legacy will continue to encourage and motivate all who carry on her work. Michelle and I offer our condolences to Wilma’s family, especially her husband Charlie and two daughters, Gina and Felicia, as well as the Cherokee Nation and all those who knew her and were touched by her good works."

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