Our idea of what a Native American Chief looks like is shaped by Hollywood films -- tanned and stoic, with a large headdress and definitely male. Enter Wilma Mankiller, who in 1985 became the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Mankiller was born in 1945 and raised on her father's ancestral land until the family willingly relocated to California under the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Indian Relocation Program.
Although Mankiller married at the age of 17 and had two children, she continued her education at the University of San Francisco. She was heavily involved in the American Indian Movement and was a participant in the occupation of Alcatraz; to bring attention to Native American issues in the late 1960s. She was instrumental in the founding of the Native American Youth Center and American Indian Community School. Her activism influenced her decision to move back to her childhood home with her two daughters in tow, sans her husband.
Upon her return to Oklahoma Mankiller started working with the Cherokee Nation and swiftly moved up the ranks -- her hard work leading the way. While recovering from an accident where she was badly injured she began to learn more about her Cherokee heritage. When she resumed her work which included building proper water channels and renovating homes, it caught the attention of Ross Swimmer who invited her to join him on his ticket as deputy chief. Soon she was given another chance to move up the ladder when Chief Swimmer took a post at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her rise was not without fault; she received multiple death threats and was the victim of vandalism. She ran for chief and was re-elected in 1987 and 1991.
In the past, women had a voice in Cherokee government. However, when Mankiller entered the governing body of the Cherokee Nation it was male-dominated. In 1990 she successfully enacted a self-governance agreement that allowed the Cherokee Nation to administer federal funds in lieu of the Bureau of Indian Affairs thus proving she could successfully negotiate landmark deals as good as any male chief. With a last name like Mankiller, Wilma was destined to smash the patriarchal sentiment which existed in the Cherokee Nation.
Read more about Wilma Mankiller in her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People