Descendants of Wilma Mankiller remember Cherokee Nation’s first female chief: NPR


Chief Wilma Mankiller, the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, revitalized her tribe’s culture by implementing a host of influential progressive policies. But first she had to overcome sexism, say her descendants.

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Chief Wilma Mankiller, the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, revitalized her tribe’s culture by implementing a host of influential progressive policies. But first she had to overcome sexism, say her descendants.

Peter Turnley / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images

Wilma Mankiller, the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, led a life that defied expectations.

His surname, adopted by his ancestor which refers to a traditional Cherokee military rank, has given rise to all kinds of misunderstandings.

“I speak quite softly and people sort of have an image of what a woman named Mankiller would be like, and I don’t think I really match their image,” she said. Fresh air in 1993.

Mankiller ruled the Oklahoma Tribe from 1985 to 1995, during which time she is known to have dramatically increased the number of tribal registrations and jobs in the Cherokee Nation, and revolutionized the tribe’s programs for the health, children and housing. She died after a battle with pancreatic cancer in 2010, leaving behind a legacy of community-driven policies that have served as a model for other tribal nations.

She will make history again next year, posthumously, when the United States plans to start hitting quarterbacks with Mankiller.

After leading a community project to bring water to a small Cherokee town in Oklahoma, Mankiller was elected deputy chief of the tribe as Chief Ross Swimmer’s running mate in 1983. Two years later, she l ‘replaced as chief when he was appointed deputy secretary. at the US Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But Mankiller’s position met with sexism, and his tribal community resisted giving him a seat at the governance table.

To understand what it took to earn her tribal community’s respect and recognition as a trailblazer, you can ask her daughter and grandson, Gina Olaya and Kellen Quinton. It was not an easy road, they said in an interview with StoryCorps last month.

“People thought we would be the laughing stock of all tribes if we had a female leader,” Olaya said.


Gina Olaya (left) and Kellen Quinton during their StoryCorps interview in Oklahoma City last month.

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Gina Olaya (left) and Kellen Quinton during their StoryCorps interview in Oklahoma City last month.

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At a large intertribal council meeting, Mankiller, who was chief at the time, was intentionally left out, Olaya said. She went there anyway.

“She found a chair, dragged it and made her way to the tables,” Olaya said. “They finished it all, and they adjourned the meeting and she stood up and said, ‘No, I have something to say.’ “

“And she was heard,” Quinton said. “People respected her fully after giving her the moment.”

She was elected full leader in 1987. Mankiller was re-elected for a second term in 1991 after winning a landslide victory.

“She did what she needed to do to prove these naysayers wrong,” Olaya said.

During her tenure, she also helped negotiate a self-government agreement that paved the way for tribal sovereignty.

Despite all her tenacity, she still found a way to let her guard down, Quinton said.

“To me, she was just a grandmother,” he said. “We would joke and dance and fool around together and have a good time.”

He and his mother remember Mankiller coming to support Quinton in his baseball and basketball games, where she screamed wildly to cheer on her grandson.

“I love that other people could see that human element in her,” he said. “She doesn’t have to be the embodiment of strength and grace all the time. She can have fun, too.”

Her grandmother is her role model, Quinton said.

“To hear people still think of her … Who would have imagined that a Native American woman would have been in the United States of America neighborhood?” he said.

“It’s mind-blowing,” said Olaya.

Product audio for Morning edition by Jo Corona.

StoryCorps is a national non-profit organization that gives people the opportunity to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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