Wilma Mankiller became Deputy Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1983. Two years later at the young age of thirty-one she became Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation. This was the first time a woman had held this position.
Mankiller grew up on a reservation in Oklahoma. The Bureau of Indian Affairs moved her family and others to San Francisco as part of their tribal relocation program in 1956 so as to "urbanize" poor rural native people. During her time there she participated in the women's movement. A 1969 demonstration by Indian college students who took over Alcatraz Island inspired her to dedicate her life to the uplifting of her people.
Some reports say that she attended the University of Arkansas and earned a sociology degree. Others say she attended both San Bruno and San Francisco State colleges in San Francisco, later earning her bachelor's degree at Flaming Rainbow College in Oklahoma in 1977. During this time she was injured in a serious car accident. She nearly lost her leg and through the course of seventeen operations to repair it, she did some serious soul searching, deepening her spirituality and further dedicating herself to the good of her people.
Knowing the Bureau of Indian Affairs as she did, she believed it essential for Indians to take care of their own affairs. Oklahoma Cherokee do not live on reservations, so she worked administering social programs through the tribal government. Mankiller established community development programs in the north eastern part of the state. This program provided millions of dollars worth of assistance for needy American Indians. In addition, she pressed the government to improve housing conditions, education, and health care conditions. Utility services were improved under her guidance. And this was all before she became chief.
She married Charlie Soap in 1986. She developed kidney problems requiring a transplant soon afterwards. Her brother served as donor, and it was after her recuperation that she decided to run for Chief so as to more effectively promote tribal causes.
The election of a woman was not something the tribe took likely. Many opposed it, and during her campaign she was harassed and her property vandalized. During her term as Chief her marriage to Charlie Soap dissolved due to disagreements over her role. They have two daughters.
Wilma Mankiller was inducted into the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame in 1986. In addition to serving as Chief of the Cherokee Nation, she served as President of the Inter-Tribal Council of Oklahoma. She was always active in a variety of concerns ranging from education to women's issues. She retired in 1995 due to health concerns.
Wilma Mankiller has demonstrated enormous will, determination and skill in accomplishing many essential goals for her people. She serves as an important role model not just for the Cherokee people, but for everyone.