Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankillerís courage won her a Medal of Freedom
By Robin A. Ladue, PhD
Part TWO of a Six-Part Series
In 1998, Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller was awarded a Medal of Freedom in recognition of her fight against institutionalized racism and sexism. She was the first woman to serve as chief of the Cherokee Nation. During her 10-year tenure, she founded the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department, and the population of her tribe increased from 55,000 to 156,000.
Mankiller was the sixth of eleven children born to full-blooded Cherokee Charley Mankiller and his Caucasian wife, Clare Irene Sitton.
She grew up poor and lived on the family allotment lands of Mankiller Flats, located near Rocky Mountain, Oklahoma. Just as Europeans set foot in the “New World,” Mankiller’s land was lost to “eminent domain,” when the United States Army took it to expand its Camp Gruber.
The Mankillers relocated to San Francisco in 1956. Eventually, they settled in Hunters Point, 2,000 miles away from Indian Territory and 3,000 miles away from the ancestral land of the Five Civilized Tribes. Mankiller remained in the Bay Area during her marriage to Hector Hugo da Bardi, an Ecuadorian college student. They had two daughters, but eventually divorced. At 20, she attended school at Skyline College and San Francisco State University, and got into activism.
She was heavily involved with the San Francisco Indian Center, and she participated in the Occupation of Alcatraz during 1969-1971. There were beliefs that the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) allowed for unused or abandoned federal lands to be returned to the Native people. Despite the fact that Alcatraz had been closed for more than five years at the time of the Occupation, the federal government refused to return the land to Native people. In June 1971, the United States government forcibly ended the Occupation.
Upon her return to Indian Territory, Mankiller took an entry-level job with her tribe. Starting in 1983, she was elected to the position of deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation. Her compatriot was Ross Swimmer, the Assistant Secretary of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). In 1991, Mankiller won the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation election by a landslide. She overcame the racism and patriarchy of the tribal council and tribal members, which was originally matriarchal just like many other tribes. But the influence of Christian denominations stripped women of their powers.
Mankiller developed and re-energized many community programs funded by the BIA, with men and women working in a collaborative manner. Her tenure as principal chief, however, was not without controversy. She worked to improve the nation-to-nation relationship between the tribe and the federal government. She was instrumental in developing laws that limited the membership of the tribe by excluding the freedmen of Cherokee Indians on the Dawes Rolls.
During the Antebellum Period, the Cherokee and other Southeast Native American nations, known as the Five Civilized Tribes, had African-American slaves. In 1866 after the American Civil War, the Cherokee signed a federal treaty granting the former slaves citizenship rights to the Cherokee Nation.
But in the early 1980s, the Cherokee Nation administration amended citizenship rules requiring direct descent from an ancestor listed on the “Cherokee By Blood” section of the Dawes Rolls. Thus, the Cherokee freedmen lost their citizenship and voting rights, unless they satisfied this new criterion. As of 2016, a final decision has not been reached on the legal situation.
Mankiller’s administration was involved in actions against the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee (UKB), headquartered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Under her tutelage, the jurisdiction of the UKB was questioned. The UKB had been responsible for the acquisition and distribution of federal assistance. It also secured funds for the Cherokee Nation Complex. As is often the case in Indian Country, conflict arose.
Mankiller suffered from many serious health problems and she died of pancreatic cancer in 2010. In 2013, “The Cherokee Word for Water,” film was released, telling of Mankiller’s efforts on behalf of her people. ♦