If you fish in your pocket or purse for a U.S. quarter today, there’s a chance you’ll see Wilma Mankiller’s face. She was the Cherokee Nation’s first female principal chief, and she inspired generations of Cherokees and young Native people like me.
In 2022, Mankiller was one of the first women honored by appearing on a series of quarters, along with renowned poet and activist Maya Angelou and physicist and astronaut Sally Ride. Mankiller’s quarter, issued in the summer of 2022, marks the first time that a Native American woman has been featured on a U.S. coin since Sacagawea appeared on the golden dollar in 2000.
As a historian of Native American history, I credit my professional career to Mankiller, whom I heard speak at Salem Women’s College when I was an undergraduate student there. I had never seen a non-Native audience listen so intently to a woman who looked like my father’s ancestors and grew up in rural Oklahoma, as he did. Like many young Cherokee people, I was raised outside the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation.
Following her lecture, I tore through her autobiography, “Mankiller: A Chief and Her People.” In her book and through her life’s work, Mankiller introduced a generation of people not just to Cherokee history but also to a model of Native women’s leadership, leading by listening to the voices from her community and supporting the programs they sought.
Mankiller’s life resembled many Native people’s lives in the 20th century before she assumed the role of principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985.
She was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, at an Indian hospital in 1945. She grew up on land secured by Cherokee people over three generations of shifting U.S. federal Indian policies, each with devastating results: the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, the Treaty of 1866 and the Curtis Act in 1898.
Mankiller’s family relocated to San Francisco in the 1950s after Congress passed the termination and relocation policy, seeking to break up and relocate Native American tribes to assimilate them. In San Francisco she met Indigenous people from diverse communities.
She came of age in San Francisco during the Red Power Movement, which was marked by Indigenous people’s activism across the country and aimed to draw attention to broken treaty promises, widespread dispossession and police brutality. She and her siblings supported the occupation of Alcatraz, a takeover by Native activists that lasted 18 months.
She married young, had children and willed herself through a college education. She divorced and returned home to Oklahoma in 1976 as a single parent with two daughters. Mankiller’s family history, like that of so many Native Americans in this country, cannot be told or understood without understanding changes in federal Indian policy, which often dictated where Native people lived and the economic opportunities available to them.
Mankiller’s life was similar to those of many families who remained in Oklahoma on allotments or within Cherokee communities after Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Until the age of 11, she grew up in Adair County, which was about 46% Cherokee in the 2020 census.