Wilma Mankiller and the Cherokee Nation



Famous Person: Wilma Mankiller

Related Topics: Cherokee, Women's Rights

Grade Level: 4th/5th

Author: Alisa S. Atherton



In August of 1983 Wilma Mankiller became the first woman to serve as deputy principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. During her four-year term, she became the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Her influence on the Cherokee people and women, in general, has been profound. Wilma Mankiller's stands include the self-sufficiency of the Cherokee people and the preservation of their culture, traditions, and our world's natural resources.


Growing Up:

For Wilma Mankiller, being born into a family of ten children and living in poverty was more than difficult. She was born in 1945 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma to a white mother and a full-blooded Cherokee father. The name of "Mankiller" comes from her Great Great Grandfather and is a name of high rank in the Cherokee military. Growing up, the family had no electricity or indoor plumbing. They lived on the 160 acres of land which Charlie Mankiller (Wilma's father) had inherited from his father. Wilma and her family lived there until she was twelve years old.

At this time the Mankiller family was relocated to the San Francisco area due to a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) program to mainstream the "rural" Native Americans into American urban life. This uprooting of the family from their homeland is part of what gave Wilma Mankiller the understanding of the endless trials of the Cherokee people during The Trail Of Tears.

In San Francisco, women were treated differently than she had ever seen. "I was trained to do what my mother did -- get married and have children." Mankiller said (Kline, on-line, 1995). She started studying sociology in 1960 and took a job as a social worker. The society she was living in and her continuing college education was vital in Mankiller's developing views.


Native American Rights Movement:

In 1969, Wilma became involved in the Native American rights movement. That same year the island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay was seized by Native American college students. Their purpose in doing this was to call attention to nearly five centuries of inhumane treatment of the Native American people. This protest lasted for eighteen months during which time Wilma Mankiller helped raise funds for the cause. This sparked Wilma's interest in the fight for equality of the Cherokee people. She became an activist and moved back to Oklahoma.


Community Development Department of the Cherokee Nation:

A few years after receiving her undergraduate degree at Flaming Rainbow University in Stilwell, Oklahoma, Wilma founded and directed the Community Development Department of the Cherokee Nation. This organization developed many rural improvements in their community. Mankiller won many grants to finance these improvements. This was the beginning of her campaign to help the Cherokee people become self-sufficient. Through the installation of new water systems and the rebuilding of houses, national attention was given to the organization. Through this, many other Native American tribes looked to the Cherokee as a model.


Deputy Principal Chief:

A man by the name of Ross Swimmer asked Mankiller to run as his deputy chief in the election of 1975. They won amidst many hesitant Cherokee who did not approve of a woman in a high office. During the next two years, the Cherokee Nation accomplished much for the betterment of their people. With Mankiller's help, a cattle and poultry ranch was established, a motel and restaurant were opened and an electronics company started. One of the many focuses of Swimmer and Mankiller were for the full-blooded and mixed-blooded Cherokee to live together in peace.


First Female Principal Chief:

The BIA needed someone to head their agency, so in 1985, Swimmer left the Cherokee Nation as Principal Chief and Wilma Mankiller filled the position. Despite much opposition, Mankiller was elected by a small margin to be the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1987. The Cherokee Nation's Chamber of Commerce was then founded. This group was dedicated to furthering the Cherokee peoples' self reliance and economy.

Another of Mankillers stands was for the preservation of the Cherokee culture. Mankiller promoted the Institute for Cherokee Literacy to aid in the preservation of their tribal language and traditions.

Mankiller was re-elected in 1991, holding 82% of the votes. She has been a firm role model for countless young girls, many of whom would never have thought of becoming Principal Chief, until now. Her influence has been felt by many around the world, who fight for the preservation of their cultures and the betterment of their people. Wilma Mankiller has received many prestigious honors, including Ms. Magazine's 1987 Woman of the Year and the 1994 Spirit of the People Award presented by the Oklahomans' Institute of Indian Heritage. In October of 1993 Wilma Mankiller was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.



Mankiller, W. And Wallis, M. (1993). Mankiller; A Chief And Her People. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press


North American Biographies. (1994). Volume One: Activists. Danbury, CT: Grolier Educational Corporation


Robbins, M.L. (1994) Native Americans. Huntington Beach, CA: Teacher Created Materials, Inc.


Sauceman, F. (1995) Wilma Mankiller Lecture. [On-Line]. Available: http://bioc09.uthsca.Edu/natnet/archive/nl/9503/0341.html


Powersource. Wilma Mankiller former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. [On-Line]. Available: http://www.powersource.com/powersource/gallery/people/wilma.html


Kline, J. (1995) Mankiller discusses the changing roles of Native American women in today's society. [On-Line]. Available: http://www.daily.iaqstate.edu/volumes/Fall 95/Oct-09-95/roles-klin.html


1. Students will be able to describe the contributions made by Wilma Mankiller and the context in which they occurred.

2. Students will be able to identify at least one way we can help preserve nature.

3. Students will be able to describe the main issues in the Trail of Tears through their persuasive writting.

4. Students will demonstrate a willingness to work with others for the betterment of the environment.

5. Students will be accountable for sharing accurate information about Sequoyah and the Cherokee's written language.

6. Students will be accountable for summarizing the Cherokee legends for their classmates.


Time Allotment:

Approximately a week and a half or 8 class periods.

Resources Needed:

•Questions for guided discussion (see Appendix A)

•Materials for service project (these could include art materials, cardboard boxes, etc.)

•Summary of the Trail of Tears (any encyclopedia should have a good summary)

•Paper and pencils for persuasive writing activity

•Five Cherokee fables (These are not being provided because of copyright, but can be found in books like Robbins, see references)

•Some type of spiral journal which will be the classroom journal.


1. Mini-Lecture. Introduce Wilma Mankiller to the class through presentation of her contributions. Include facts which have been provided in background, including where she was born, and other major contributions. Focus on the main reason she is famous throughout the Cherokee people especially, for being the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Also, focus on her stands as Principal Chief: self-sufficiency and preservation of Cherokee culture and traditions, one which includes the treatment of our natural resources with respect.


2. Guided Discussion. Reiterate the fact that one of the things which Mankiller fought for was the preservation of nature and traditions sacred to the Cherokee people. Lead the students in a discussion about Mankillers belief that human life and all living things are very dependent upon the natural world, which we are slowly destroying. (Appendix A).


3. Service Project. Have students discuss what they can do to improve the recycling efforts at their school. Have them collaborate on activities which would help their school recycle. Possibilities include: a newsletter, posters, recycling containers for their cafeteria, an assembly, or a play which would be put on for other classrooms or parents.


4. Think-Pair-Share. With your students, share again the fact that when Wilma Mankiller was 12 years old, her family was uprooted and moved from their homeland in Oklahoma to San Francisco. This is the event which most affected her in reguards to relating with those Native Americans who were involved in The Trail Of Tears. Individually, have students read the summary of The Trail Of Tears (see encyclopedia). Have them evaluate the main issues of The Trail Of Tears and their agreement or disagreement of President Andrew Jackson's decision to pass the Indian Removal Act, which took the Native Americans from their homeland. In pairs have students share their evaluations. Then, open the discussion up to the class and share thoughts.


5 Persuasive Writing. Wilma Mankiller was a strong advocate for her people and their rights which had been repressed for so many years. Had she been alive at the time of The Trail Of Tears, she would surely have been involved in the protest of it. Have the students write a letter to President Andrew Jackson in favor or not in favor of the Indian Removal Act. Be sure to include the time frame in their letters, as they will be writing as if they were living in the year of 1830.


6. Jigsaw. The Cherokee culture is one issue which Wilma Mankiller is fighting to preserve. One aspect of their culture is the legends which have been passed from generation to generation. It is important for our students to understand that just like we have our own traditions, this is one of theirs. Divide the students up into groups of five. Have the students get into expert groups. Give each group a Cherokee legend and have them become experts about it (see Robbins, references). Legends are not being provided due to copyright laws, but there are plenty of sources providing this information. Students can read the legend individually or aloud in their groups and then discuss their ideas. When they are familiar with the legends, they should get back into their base groups and share the information they learned. Teacher will then have students share their learned information about the legends. Others who are experts on that legend may contribute.


7. Inquery. Being a self-sufficient society has been a goal of Mankiller's. The Cherokee people are intelligent, peace-loving people and Wilma Mankiller has had a part in this, as did Sequoyah. Through his creating the first written language of any Native American tribe, the doors were opened to his people. Have the students go the school library and research Sequoyah. Have the students research facts like: how long it took Sequoyah to create the syllabary and what doors were opened to the Cherokee people by being literate in their written language. If the internet is available to students, have them research using technology. There is plenty of information out there on Sequoyah and his syllabary. After researching, have students share their information with the class.


8. Classroom Journal. In a classroom journal have each student write down two contributions which Wilma Mankiller made to society. Also, have students record what their favorite thing was pertaining to the service project. Keep this journal in the classroom for the whole class to read.


Optional Activities:

1. Basket weaving. The Cherokee people are known for their basket weaving. There is much information on the process if this is an art activity you would like to try.


2. Games. The Cherokee people played many games which there is also information on. These are fun for students to participate in, as they like to see what games the Cherokee people enjoyed playing.



1. Contributions to guided discussion will be assessed informally through participation.

2. Legitimacy of service project activity will be assessed, as will the students' willingness to take part in service project.

3. Contributions to Think-Pair-Share will be assessed informally through observation.

4. Persuasive writing by students will be assessed by looking for the restatement of the main issues of The Trail Of Tears.

5. Assessment will take place informally as teacher circulates to groups and listens to the explainations of the legends.

6. Contributions to research investigation will be assessed through observation and contribution to the class discussion.

7. Journal entries in classroom journal will be assessed.


Appendix A:


These are some questions to lead your guided discussion:


1. When Wilma Mankiller speaks about destroying the natural world, what do you think she means?

2. What are we, as humans doing which is destroying our world?

3. What are some ways we can help combat this problem?

4. Who are some people you know who help combat this problem and in what ways are they helping?

5. What can we, as a class do to help better our world?