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Activist, First Female Chief of the Cherokee Nation

Gloria Steinem, Board Member Emeritus, celebrates Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010) as part of Equality Now’s 30 for 30, featuring 30 women and changemakers who have played a key role in making equality reality as part of our 30th anniversary celebrations.

Wilma Mankiller made history in 1985 when she was elected the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, making her the first woman to be elected chief of a major Native American Tribe. The role is not only steeped in history, but also in responsibility. The Cherokee Nation encompasses much of the state of Oklahoma and carries more responsibility than the roles of a governor and a U.S. senator combined.

I first met Wilma when she joined the board of the Ms. Foundation for Women. We got even closer as she was about to undergo her first kidney transplant, a procedure I was already familiar with as a close friend had just undergone the same, so I was able to help her navigate this medical maze.

Wilma’s greatest gift was that she was able to create political independence, not dependence. During her reign as chief, Wilma helped to revitalize the Cherokee Nation’s tribal government and was a determined advocate for improvements to healthcare, housing, and education. She also worked closely with the federal government to institute a self-governance agreement for the Cherokee Nation.

Of course, there were those in her nation who opposed the idea of a woman as chief, never mind that a council of female elders had once been responsible for choosing tribal leaders and deciding which wars to fight. But Wilma firmly proved her doubters wrong; in 1991 she won her reelection by a historic 85 percent.

My friend loved to see people flourish. As chief and as a community renewal leader she trusted people to tell her what they needed. “I’ve always trusted disenfranchised people to come up with their own ideas” Wilma later told me. She would only ask, “What single thing would change this community most?”

Wilma was the best kind of leader; helping people who bear the scars of centuries of oppression and genocide come to a place of healing. I’ve said before that, in a just world, Wilma would have gone on to become President of the United States.

Inevitably, questions always arose about Wilma’s name, and her response varied depending on how politely someone had asked. If she was asked politely, she’d explain that “Mankiller” was an honorific for someone who protects a group. If she was asked not so politely, she’d say “I earned it!”

Wilma remains a symbol of hope and possibility for Native women and within the women’s movement. Her death on April 6, 2010, left a massive void in my life and those of the millions of people who her work touched. I missed her dearly.

Wilma was my chosen family, and I had the honor of being part of hers.j

A headshot of Wilma Mankiller against a gray background with stars.

Photo Credit: Jenny Warburg

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