I met Wilma Mankiller when I was an intern in Washington, DC, way on back in the 20th century. We had been unsure of what to think of her name upon seeing it listed amongst the guests of the event, and I remember either she or another speaker commenting on its uniqueness as well. I was impressed by her accomplishments and she was encouraging to us as young women leaders hoping to shatter the glass ceiling. Championing not just women’s rights, she served as a much needed role model for minority women, particularly Native American women. She was the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation and drastically improved social services, as well as education, for Cherokees in the US from 1985-1995. Mankiller overcame many challenges in achieving this position having been born in poverty and experiencing racism throughout her life. Additionally, US policies regarding Tribes, as well as criticism from other Native American Tribes for her chosen priorities as Chief proved challenging to the success she ultimately she attained. I think that part of her significance was also her commitment to sharing her story (through publications as well as speaking tours) and educating Americans on the 20th century experience of the Cherokee. She had significant health concerns requiring a kidney transplant, was a divorced mother of two and endured a lengthy recovery from serious injuries as a result of a car accident. Breaking stereotypes and speaking out on racist policies and attitudes earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.
She was quoted in her 2010 obituary in the Washington Post; ” “I had supervised carpenters and engineers, and no one ever questioned me. But when I wanted to move into leadership, they couldn’t figure me out,” she told The Washington Post in 1993. “At committee meetings people would say, ‘If we elect a woman, our tribe will be the laughingstock.’ If I hadn’t been through all I’d been through, I wouldn’t have had the maturity and the calm to go on talking about the issues.”