Wilma Mankiller

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    Black and white photography of Wilma Mankiller in front of the tribal emblem at the Cherokee Nation

    Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected chief of the Cherokee Nation, poses in front of the tribal emblem at the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma on July 19, 1985. (AP Photo)

    Wilma Mankiller is a Native American activist, social worker and community builder.

    She was the first woman elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Her name refers to a traditional high military rank achieved by an ancestor.

    She grew up on Mankiller Flats, the farm granted to her grandfather as part of a government settlement. After the economic failure of the farm, the family moved to California.

    But she would return later to Oklahoma to reclaim the land, emboldened by her activism in the Native American Rights movement.

    During the 1960s Mankiller studied sociology and got a job as a social worker.

    In 1977 she took a job as economic stimulus coordinator for the Cherokee Nation. She got her degree in social science and took courses in community planning at the University of Arkansas.

    She was the first woman to be elected to serve as chief of a major Native American tribe. Her victory ushered in an administration that focused on lowering the high unemployment rate, increasing educational opportunities, improving community health care, and developing the economy of northeastern Oklahoma.

    She emphasized the necessity of retaining certain Cherokee traditions by creating the Institute for Cherokee Literacy. Mankiller was reelected in 1991, but she did not run in 1995.

    Mankiller was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and in 1998 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

    Her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, was published in 1993.

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