In an historic tribal election in July 1987, the members of the Cherokee National of Oklahoma elected their first women Principal Chief, Wilma Mankiller. She was re-elected in 1991 with nearly 83% of the vote. In 1983, Mankiller had been elected Deputy Principal Chief, also the first woman to hold that position. She succeeded the previous Chief upon his resignation in December 1985.
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Chief Mankiller's roots are planted deep in the rural community of Rocky Mountain in Adiar County, OK. She was born at the Indian Hospital in Tahlequah, and grew up in a rural setting with few amenities. When she was 11, her family moved to California as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Relocation Program.
In 1969, when American Indian activists occupied Alcatraz Island to dramatize the injustices their people has suffered, she experienced an awakening, or call to action, that changed her life. Besides participating in that struggle, Mankiller did volunteer work among Native Americans in California. By 1974, she and her two children Felicia and Gina returned to Oklahoma.
Chief Mankiller's initial work for the Cherokee Nation included the recruitment of young Native Americans for university training in environmental science. In 1979, she completed her college degree, then began commuting to the University of Arkansas for graduate study. Enroute to the school, Mankiller suffered a near fatal head-on automobile collision. To recover from her extensive injuries, she adopted what Cherokees call "being of good mind," meaning "one has to think positively, to take what is handed out and turn it into a better path."
Through her commitment to rural community development, she persistently pursued proposals for various housing, education and health care projects. She was the founding director of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department.
During Mankiller's tenure as Principal Chief, tribal membership tripled in size, the annual budget doubled, and the number of tribal members increase dramatically. Most importantly, health services and services to children were greatly expanded.
Mankiller, who left office in 1995, co-authored "Mankiller: A Chief and Her People," which included the story of the Cherokee Nation, one of the country's largest tribal groups. She also co-edited the "Readers Companion to the History of Women in the U.S." and served as a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College during the 1996 winter term.
Today, as in her childhood, Mankiller lives in the Rocky Mountain Community of Adair County, OK, on the Mankiller land allotment.
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