Wilma Mankiller Led as the First Woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

June 6, 2022
Coin depicting Wilma Mankiller, wearing a traditional shawl, and the seven-pointed star of the Cherokee Nation

Image of 2022 Wilma Mankiller quarter, part of the American Women Quarters™ Program. Copyright United States Mint. Used with permission.

By Sarah Ramirez, fall 2021 intern for the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, Because of Her Story 

Today the U.S. Mint released a quarter featuring activist and writer Wilma Mankiller. This is the third coin in the American Women Quarters™ Program. Already-issued quarters feature Dr. Maya Angelou and Dr. Sally Ride.  

From 2022 through 2025, the U.S. Mint will release new quarters each year featuring American women who changed the nation and the world. This year, additional coins will feature suffragist Adelina Otero-Warren and Hollywood actress Anna May Wong. 

Staff members at the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative, Because of Her Story, are excited to help bring this series to life with the U.S. Mint and the National Women's History Museum.  

We invite you to explore Mankiller’s life and legacy.

Wilma Mankiller

Activist, leader, and writer Wilma Mankiller was the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. She revolutionized the Cherokee healthcare system and created long-lasting community-oriented policies.  

Wilma Mankiller was born on November 8, 1945, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Her last name, Mankiller, was adopted by her ancestor. It refers to a person who watched over Cherokee people and villages.  

Mankiller's family was affected by laws that forced Native Americans to relocate. From 1946 through the 1960s, the U.S. government passed a series of laws known as the “termination” bills that ended government support for Native Americans by disbanding tribes and selling reservation lands. Over 100 tribes were terminated, and at least 1.3 million acres of land were removed. The bills also closed certain schools and health clinics on reservations.  

The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 was one of the termination bills. It encouraged Native Americans to move from their tribal lands into cities under the guise of obtaining better job opportunities. According to the National Archives, many Native Americans who moved from their homes struggled to adjust to their new lives in urban areas. They faced unemployment, discrimination, and the loss of traditional cultural support.  

In 1957, Mankiller and her family were relocated from Cherokee lands in Oklahoma to a housing project in San Francisco, California. In San Francisco, Mankiller became a social activist to confront the injustices Native Americans faced. She joined the protest at Alcatraz Island alongside other Native activists. They wanted the U.S. government to listen to their demands, such as reversing the termination bills and providing a cultural center and school on the island for Native Americans. She worked alongside Richard Oakes, a Mohawk Native American activist, to claim Alcatraz Island in the name of Native Americans of all tribes. The protest brought international attention to Native issues and lasted for 19 months. 

Mankiller volunteered in the Native American community in California before moving back to Oklahoma in 1975. In Oklahoma, she worked to improve rural Cherokee community services such as health-care, housing, and education. She led a volunteer project to build a waterline in a Cherokee community in Bell.

Mankiller recalled, “In Bell, Oklahoma, 25 percent of people didn’t have indoor plumbing and lived in dilapidated conditions.”  

She organized local volunteers and secured funding for the ambitious task, which revitalized the community. Mankiller gained recognition in the Cherokee Nation for her work on the Bell project.  

In 1983, Ross Swimmer asked her to run as Deputy Chief of the Cherokee Nation in his Principal Chief bid. Swimmer won the election. When he stepped down to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1985, Mankiller became the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.  

Wilma Mankiller speaking at a podium while wearing a green beaded necklace 

Wilma Mankiller at the book reading for her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Photo by Katherine Fogden for the National Museum of the American Indian, 2005. 

She was elected to office in 1987 and re-elected in 1991, winning 83% of the vote. In all, she remained Principal Chief for 10 years. In her role, Mankiller served 140,000 enrolled members and managed a 75-million-dollar budget. She doubled tribal enrollment and revenues under her leadership. As Principal Chief, Mankiller opened three rural health centers and expanded the Head Start program to promote school readiness for young Cherokee children. She started a center for prevention of drug abuse and was a founding director of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department. The Office of Tribal Justice in the U.S. Department of Justice was established with her help.  

In 1994, Mankiller was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. President Bill Clinton awarded Mankiller the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. She wrote her autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, in 1993. In her book, she states, “I want to be remembered as the person who helped Indigenous people restore faith in themselves.” Mankiller spent her life leading, writing, and teaching people about Native American cultures, especially the Cherokee people. She died in 2010, leaving a legacy of community-oriented policies that have served as a model for other tribal nations.  

Wilma Mankiller’s memoir, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, is in the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian showcased the documentary film Mankiller at the Native Cinema Showcase in 2017

Sarah Ramirez was the fall 2021 Because of Her Story intern for the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. Her work focused on expanding the Smithsonian's reach through creating a social media guide and writing website articles. Today, Ramirez works in the Smithsonian's Office of Special Events and Protocol.