President Bill Clinton hugs former Cherokee Nation chief Wilma Mankiller after presenting her with a Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House, Jan. 15, 1998.
TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma — Wilma Pearl Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, is one of four candidates in a popular vote to suggest who should replace President Andrew Jackson’s face on the new $20 bill.
“Wilma Mankiller was quite effective in bringing change to the Cherokee people,” said Susan Stone, spokeswoman for Women On 20s, a movement campaigning for a woman to be the new face of the $20 bill to be issued in 2020, the 100th anniversary women’s suffrage and the first time a new face has been put on a bill since 1929.
“She was challenged by her health and managed to overcome great adversity to accomplish a lot,” Stone told MintPress News.
The Women on 20s campaign gave jurists an initial list of 100 women to consider in terms of achievements and obstacles overcome. So far, 256,000 voters have weighed in, and Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks were the top three candidates in the primary round of voting. Mankiller’s nomination was the result of the public calling for a Native American woman to replace Jackson on the bill.
“When voting got underway, we began hearing from people wanting a Native American on the ballot to replace Andrew Jackson,” Stone said. “After a number of weeks of repeated requests, we put Wilma’s name in the final ballot.”
Indeed, in what some may see as an ironic twist or perhaps even poetic justice, Mankiller’s face could ultimately replace that of the president who enforced the 1830 Removal Act. This act sent the U.S. Army to force 17,000 Cherokee, including Mankiller’s great-grandfather, to walk the “Trail of Tears” from their southeast homeland to Oklahoma with little clothing, food, medicines or shoes. About 4,000 died along the way from starvation, exposure, disease and murder.
And while Mankiller wouldn’t be the first Native American woman featured on a piece of U.S. currency — Sacagawea was put on a gold dollar in 1999 — she would be the first woman to ever appear on a paper bill.
“Her entire adult life … was about helping people”
In 1998, more than a century after her great-grandfather arrived in Oklahoma, Mankiller received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
“She never saw herself as an innovator,” said Gina Olaya, Mankiller’s daughter, told MintPress. “Her entire adult life back in Oklahoma was about helping people. She truly had a deep-seated love for people.”
Mankiller was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1945 to Charley Mankiller, a full-blooded Cherokee, and Clara Sitton, who was of Dutch-Irish descent. The sixth of 11 children, Mankiller grew up in a home without electricity, indoor plumbing or a telephone before the family relocated to San Francisco in 1959 as part of the Indian Relocation Program under the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
She married Hector Olaya, an Ecuadorean businessman, when she was just 17 years old. The couple had two daughters, Felicia and Gina, born in 1964 and 1966, respectively.
When political activism swept the nation in the 1960s, Mankiller starting getting involved with Native American activism, coordinating Indian programs for Oakland public schools, and taking college classes at night. She was particularly affected by American Indians landing on Alcatraz Island in November 1969 and occupying it for 19 months to call attention to the government’s indifference to indigenous affairs.
“She was seeing the federal government was continuing injustices to Natives,” Gina Olaya said. ”We drove a broken down station wagon to visit friends. My sister and I grew up really independent. At the age of six and eight we took the San Francisco bus system by ourselves. My mom was finishing school. It was that 70s time. The Pit River Tribe was fighting to re-retain ancestral lands and we’d go there and hold picket signs.”
“They came to see her vision”
Mankiller started working for the Cherokee Nation when she moved back to Oklahoma with her two daughters in 1979.
“She was in a bad car accident and her best friend died [in 1979],” Olaya said. “She felt death. She saw the light and the joy. From that time forward she was not afraid of death. Her whole demeanor changed.”
Mankiller, her second husband, Charlie Soap, and Chief Ross Swimmer began the Bell Water Project to construct an 18-mile line to bring water into a small community at the southern edge of the reserve.
“Revitalization as a nation was in its infancy then,” Olaya said. “We were just beginning to again be a distinct tribal entity.”
Mankiller was named the tribe’s principal chief in 1985, when Swimmer accepted a role with the BIA. She faced strong opposition in her 1987 campaign, and she set up a space for people to picket against her being elected chief of the male-dominated Cherokee leadership.
In the meantime, her campaign attempted to raise awareness via mailers. “We’d send out mailings, but people never got them,” Olaya said. “They slashed tires, burnt signs. No one supported mom.”
When she took office, Mankiller made it a point to hire the person who was most qualified for any position — even if that person had been among her opposition.
In 1990 Mankiller signed the self-determination agreement that took control of millions of dollars out of the hands of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and into her nation’s control.
“Mom had just undergone a kidney transplant and signed it while she was still at the hospital in Boston,” Olaya said. “The act opened the door to determining how tribes would disseminate all federal funds in the way they see fit.”
Though she had entered office amid opposition, she became more and more popular every year.
“At one point they tried to impeach her,” Olaya said. “But by 1991, her last election, she got 82 percent of the votes. A lot of people found leadership in mom. They came to see her vision. It takes a huge person to do that.”
During her tenure she improved health care, education, housing and children’s programs. Her tribe’s enrollment tripled from 55,000 to 156,000, employment opportunities doubled, and infant mortality declined by the time she left office in 1995.
When Mankiller retired, she knew she was ill. Even after a successful battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma a year later, she declined opportunities to remain in the political arena.
“She decided she wanted to be known as a writer and declined all invitations to be politically active,” Olaya said. “In my mind, this last part of her life she became the best of both the free, loving mom of the 70s and the steadfast leader of a nation.”
Mankiller died in Oklahoma of pancreatic cancer on April 6, 2010. She was 64.
About 1,200 people attended her memorial service at the Cherokee National Cultural Grounds in Tahlequah, and President Barack Obama issued a statement:
“As the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, she transformed the nation-to-nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the federal government, and served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America. Her legacy will continue to encourage and motivate all who carry on her work.”