LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 20: Writer Wilma Mankiller, who was honored at the event, attends the American Indian College Fund Gala at the Museum of the American West on May 20, 2005 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images)

Happy Women’s History Month! This is the 9th blog of a series of blogs called “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known American women who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).

The focus of today’s blog is Wilma Mankiller, the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

This is her story.

Relocated to San Francisco

According to Time Magazine, growing up, Wilma Mankiller developed a sense of just how important Native American communities can be. After being born in 1945 in Oklahoma, Mankiller and her family were forcibly relocated in the 1950s to San Francisco. At this time, the federal government tried to get Native American people to assimilate. In San Francisco, Mankiller and her family experienced heavy racism and discrimination, but they also found a community among other Native American families in the area.

Return to Oklahoma

After starting a family in California, Mankiller relocated back to her family’s land in Oklahoma with her children in 1977. There, they lived without electricity or running water. Mankiller soon took a role with the Cherokee Nation, working to get the tribe to be self-sustaining and self-governing. In 1983, Ross Swimmer ran for Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation with Mankiller as his running mate. She faced some sexism, but they ended up winning.

Becoming Principal Chief

Just two years later, Swimmer left the position to pursue a federal position instead. This made Mankiller the first woman to become Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. During her time leading the Nation, she allocated money from the casinos into providing better health care and dropping the unemployment rate. These efforts seemed to be successful. Not only did the Nation reelect her for two more terms before she decided not to run again, but the Nation saw doubled employment rates, lower infant mortality rates, and growing tribal enrollment.

Retirement and Autobiography

Mankiller served as Principal Chief for ten years before retiring in 1995 due to poor health. After retirement, she wrote an autobiography, which not only detailed the story of her life, but also included the myths, legends, core values, and histories of the Cherokee Nation. Mankiller passed in 2010 of pancreatic cancer. Her legacy remains with the Cherokee Nation as a leader with the vision of a self-governing community. Read more about Wilma Mankiller here or here.

Read another post from the blog series “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know” here.