Reconsidering Wilma Mankiller

As the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief’s image is minted onto a coin, her full humanity should be examined.


On June 6, the United States Mint will release a limited number of quarters commemorating  Wilma Mankiller, part of its American Woman Quarters program, which was created to celebrate the “accomplishments and contributions made by women to the development and history of our country.” Mankiller, the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, is one of the most well-known and widely respected Native American figures in the country.

The new quarter commemorating Wilma Mankiller, the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief.
United States Mint

But, like all human beings, she’s complicated: She was also an architect of the mass disenrollment of the Black members of her tribe (also known as “Freedmen”) — a position she regretted later in life, and an injustice that has only just been fully remedied under the current Cherokee principal chief, Chuck Hoskin, Jr.

Mankiller's election in 1983 will, and should, be remembered as the first in which a woman was elected deputy chief. It was also the first election since 1866 — when the Cherokee Nation, in a treaty with the United States, acknowledged its former slaves as citizens — in which Black Cherokees were not allowed to vote. Two watershed events, one of them an uplifting sign of progress and a return to Cherokee ideals of matrilineal power, and the other, a reversal of century-old tribal policy that left a lingering “shadow” on the nation, as Mankiller herself later put it in her autobiography.

As we celebrate the release of this quarter and honor Mankiller herself, what can we learn from her initial decision about Cherokee Freedmen, her later change of heart, and her life as a whole?

Mankiller was born on Nov. 18, 1945, in the Cherokee Nation capital of Tahlequah, to a Cherokee father and a white mother. Her early childhood was spent in Adair County, where her family grew some of their own food but contended with extreme poverty. When the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 pushed Native people to move to urban areas, promising them assistance finding jobs and homes, Mankiller’s family was one of the thousands who thought the risk might prove worthwhile. They moved hundreds of miles away, ultimately settling in San Francisco, where their maternal relatives lived.

The move was hard on Mankiller and her siblings, who found it difficult to make friends and adjust to school. Mankiller found some solace in local pan-Indian community organizations, and as time went by, she absorbed the activist atmosphere of the Bay Area and became active in the American Indian Movement. She also met and married her first husband, Ecuadorian Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi.

Mankiller didn’t easily fall into her life’s work. Rather, she followed a meandering path through legal work with California tribes and Native youth in Oakland, as well as community development in various Cherokee Nation positions. Along the way, she suffered a devastating car crash and a lengthy recovery. All these experiences diversified her skill set and eventually brought her into politics.

When Ross Swimmer, the incumbent Cherokee principal chief, asked Mankiller to be his running mate in his bid for a third term, Mankiller accepted. Despite a vicious onslaught of gendered harassment — she received death threats and had her tires slashed — she and Swimmer triumphed, and she went on to become a national and international icon of female political power and Native American representation.

Chief Wilma Mankiller of the Cherokee Nation, photographed in 1992. In 1996, she returned to her life as an activist.
Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Behind the scenes, though, the election that brought her to prominence revealed a deeply divided citizenry. Schisms had long been a part of Cherokee society, but during the lead-up to this election, tribal citizens argued about the correct place of mixed-race versus non-mixed-race Cherokees, United Keetoowah Band membership and the general direction of the nation.

In the 1970s, as the Cherokees regained the power to elect their own tribal leaders and amend political documents, including the Cherokee Constitution, they began to ponder the social and economic directions the tribe should take. And this raised the question: If the tribe became wealthy, who would benefit?

Today, tribes across the country have wrestled with this same question. Many have responded by enforcing the strategic exclusion of certain members in order to economically benefit the citizens who remain. For Ross Swimmer in the early 1980s, the choice of which group to exclude was clear: the historically oppressed Black members of the tribe, who descended from people who were once enslaved by Cherokees and who generally share Cherokee ancestry.

At Swimmer’s urging, the Cherokee Tribal Council modified the Cherokee Nation Tribal Code to stipulate that tribal membership required proof of Cherokee blood. Freedmen who attempted to vote in 1983 suffered the pain and embarrassment of being turned away at the polls.     

The experience Mankiller had had with Native people from many backgrounds and tribes — and her own experience as a mixed-race person and a woman who’d faced discrimination — should have led her to see this for what it was: a prejudiced, and purely political, attack. Instead, she was willing to accept a distorted version of Cherokee identity and disenfranchise thousands of people. And for what? To consolidate power? To strengthen a handpicked portion of the Cherokee Nation?

What does it mean that a woman who exemplified Native female power and pride was also a supporter of segregation and inequality?

When Ross Swimmer was appointed assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he resigned his tribal position, and Wilma Mankiller was sworn in, becoming the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. In 1987, she ran for the position and won, serving two terms in office — terms that were largely defined by her attention to improving access to such essential programs as Head Start. She also helped to establish the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Tribal Justice.

Waynetta Lawrie, left, of Tulsa, Okla., stands with others at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City in March 2007, during a demonstration by several Cherokee Freedmen and their supporters. Mankiller was an initial architect of the mass disenrollment of Black members from the tribe, a position she later said she regretted.
AP Photo

But Mankiller’s stance on the Freedmen was not just a one-time misjudgment.

In 2003, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was poised to reject the results of Chad Smith’s election because Freedmen had not been allowed to vote, Mankiller was part of a delegation poised to meet with Bush administration officials to protest. The BIA backed down, and Black Cherokees continued to be excluded until 2017, when, again, the United States sought to pressure the Cherokee Nation into abiding by its treaty provisions concerning Freedmen. Finally, the Cherokee Nation, under the Hoskin Jr. administration, accepted that allowing the political inclusion of Freedmen was the right course of action. 

Later in life, after her career in politics was over, when Mankiller spoke about the problems some Native people had with the Black members of various tribes, she never truly acknowledged her part in her own nation’s racial issues. In 2001, she spoke at a session of the National Congress of American Indians titled “Exploring the Legacy and Future of Black/Indian Relations.” She pointed out that Native people with white ancestry were more readily accepted than those with Black ancestry and noted that the Seminole Nation had recently expelled its own Freedmen from tribal membership. But she said nothing about her own nation’s rampant intolerance with regard to Black Cherokees. Nor did she work with the Cherokee Nation to advocate for Black Cherokees.

Mankiller died from pancreatic cancer in 2010. In the past two years, the Cherokee Nation has become a trailblazer when it comes to the full inclusion of Black Indians, incorporating the Freedmen’s history into its museums and soliciting their participation in elections and tribal culture. But this outreach to Black Indians would never have been necessary if not for the actions that occurred decades ago, some of them under Mankiller’s tenure.

So, what can we take from this as Native people?

We should lead with love and inclusion, just as we would like the broader American society to do.

We should refrain from ever using hate or fearmongering to obtain political power. We should be willing to learn and evolve, as Mankiller did, but we shouldn’t wait until we’re no longer in office to call out the wrongs within our nations. We should lead with love and inclusion, just as we would like the broader American society to do. When white political leaders whose policies hurt people of color are remembered in a way that hides or neglects to acknowledge their wrongdoing, we push back, seeking a more accurate assessment of their lives and policies.

And so I ask us to reconsider Wilma Mankiller and see her in her full but flawed humanity, not just as a symbol on a pedestal, but as an imperfect person who ultimately realized that her beloved Cherokee Nation got it wrong. Now we can all look forward and continue the fight to make things right in the Cherokee Nation and in every Indian nation with a slaveholding past.

Alaina E. Roberts is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of I've Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land.

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