Changes in High Places as Tradition Takes a Beating in Executive Suites : Hail to the Chief: The First Woman to Serve as Head of the Cherokee Nation

Times Staff Writer

This is Cherokee Country, a land of rolling green hills in eastern Oklahoma near the Arkansas border, where the street signs and that of the local bank are written in English and Cherokee, the university’s football team is called the Redmen, and the Restaurant of the Cherokees offers homemade chili, barbecued beef and Indian fry bread.

It is the site of the original Cherokee Capitol building, where the ancestors of today’s Cherokee residents set up their government in 1839, at the end of their “Trail of Tears,” the relocation march west from the Carolinas.

72,000-Member Tribe

As with their forebears, the Cherokee chief heads its nation. But the similarity to old tribal ways stops there.


The present chief of the Cherokee Nation is Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to serve as principal chief of the tribe, which numbers about 72,000 Cherokees living in this and the surrounding 13 counties of eastern Oklahoma.

Mankiller has served not quite a year as Cherokee chief and will face an election next June for a four-year term, if she decides to run--a question she’s still pondering.

But right now, Wilma Mankiller sticks to the business at hand--the welfare, health, education and development of the Cherokee Nation.

“I am a real optimist, but I do see a revitalization movement with Indian people, symbolic of all different tribes,” Mankiller said during a recent interview in her office on the outskirts of Tahlequah, about 80 miles southeast of Tulsa. “Especially in developing small businesses. There is more potential in lots of small businesses than in the megabuck industries. A lot of tribes have been waiting a long long time for the megabuck industries to come to their areas, and we’re still waiting.”


Mankiller’s plan for Cherokee economic development is to devise as many kinds of “self-help” programs as possible. The self-help theme was begun when Ross Swimmer was elected principal chief and Mankiller deputy chief in 1983. She took over as chief last November when Swimmer went to Washington as assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In the late 1970s Mankiller started the tribe’s community development department. Her first project, in a small, poor town called Bell, was a water system designed and built by its citizens. There are currently eight other towns with projects similar to that of Bell.

In the 14 Oklahoma counties that make up the Cherokee Nation, the per capita income is $5,695 a year. The poorest of those counties, Adair, is 33% Indian in population and lists an average per capita income of $3,908.

‘A Lot of Strong Ideas’

“I have a lot of strong ideas about community development, especially decentralizing services and moving them to the rural communities,” Mankiller said.

She does not believe that bingo, started by other American Indian tribes, is an answer for the Cherokee. “It has been good for some other tribes, but not for us,” she said. “It’s a quick fix for money, but it’s too risky. This is a Bible Belt here and many Cherokees are Baptists. I don’t think the tribal citizens want bingo. So we try to create other good and positive things.

“When we ran for office in 1983, I was surprised at the reaction because I’m a woman,” Mankiller said. “But I don’t think there is so much of that now. Women here are in a good position. The former chief was very supportive of women. His wife was going to law school and he recruited me for deputy chief. I think now the young girls in high school and college have put their ambitions a little higher than they would have.

“If I decide to run, I don’t think any other women will run against me, but it will still be very difficult,” she said. “It will be no piece of cake, but not as bad as before. People have said, ‘If a man had done one-fourth of what Wilma’s done, there is no question he would be elected, but because she’s female, she will be forever answering questions about female leadership.’ ”


Before the Cherokee society encountered the white man, women were powerful in their tribe, according to Mankiller, but over the years they adopted a male-dominated culture. “Way back in our history, women did have a far more significant role. They were called clan mothers and they actually selected the man who would be chief,” she said.

A Good Team

Before being asked by Swimmer to run for office in the Cherokee Nation, it had never occurred to Mankiller to get into politics, she admitted.

“I thought we would be a good team,” she explained. “Ross has national interests and mine are in rural development. Now, I do the day-to-day work of chief, that’s like being the chief executive officer of a corporation--getting ideas, putting together projects, getting communities together to solve their own problems. But I am still mainly interested in rural development and the idea of getting problems solved ourselves from within. I make a conscientious effort to stay in touch with the people. The people are the very reason I got here in the first place.”

Mankiller came back to her rural Oklahoma homeland with her two children in 1977 as a grants writer for the tribe, a transition that was difficult for her daughters, who had grown up in San Francisco. She built a small house on her family’s land, part of the 160 acres deeded by the federal government to each Cherokee family in 1906.

As community development director, she began many community programs, among them the first tribal program for the elderly, a children’s nutrition program, and a nursery and garden business.

Now, her duties as chief are vast and varied, and she works 12 to 15 hours a day. In addition to supervising tribal affairs, she is a board member or officer in 15 organizations, most dealing with American Indians.

“I just got back from Missouri,” she said. “There are a lot of Indians in Missouri, but they’re not federally organized Indian tribes, as we are here . . . there are four groups of Indians there who are trying to get the state more interested in Indian people. The reason I went is that one of those groups has predominantly Cherokee membership. . . .


“I spoke with the (Missouri) governor, and he said he was doing a proclamation thanking American Indians for their contributions to the state. I told him I thought their contributions were significant, since they gave Missouri the state.”

A Quiet Manner

Mankiller has a quiet manner about her, but when she makes a wry statement, her dark eyes light up. She smiles easily, but spends each day in a lot of pain.

Mankiller, who is 40, suffers from myasthenia gravis, a disease characterized by extreme muscle fatigue and weakness. Her condition is in remission because of the medication she is taking, but the side effect of the drugs has been a substantial weight gain, about 50 pounds.

“That’s been a tremendous weight gain for me,” she said. “But I am changing medications in October, so I hope to take off some weight. I’ve never been overweight before, but to me, that’s a small price to pay for the ability to walk and to have full function.”

Last week, Mankiller flew to Fort Defiance, Ariz., for a rural economic development meeting of the board of the Seventh Generation Fund, an Indian organization that supports a small farm project there.

From Arizona, she went on to North Carolina, to address a Cherokee group there.

Of the Arizona farm project, Mankiller said: “We’re using drip irrigation, a system that uses a small amount of water to irrigate desert areas. It was developed by Israel. It’s been so encouraging. We’re just a bunch of people interested in small-scale economic development. We hoped to have 25 people there for the meeting. There were well over 100, from Alaska, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Kansas.

“We talk in a positive way and you can see the development there,” she added. “The project has been under way about two years and this is the first year we’ve had production on the farm. They’re raising cucumbers, squash, melons, corn, tomatoes. They’re the very best vegetables I’ve ever tasted.”

Mankiller’s economic ideas for the Cherokee include starting small businesses, as well as small farms, raising vegetables and chickens.

“We’re looking into getting into the poultry business,” she said. “There are a lot of poultry places over in Arkansas where a lot of our people work. And poultry sales are going up, and beef keeps going down. Why couldn’t we have one ourselves?”

The Cherokee tribe already runs a high school for about 200 poor children, a motel, restaurant and gift shop complex, a nursery, garden and landscaping business, a museum, theater and cultural center, all in Tahlequah. In nearby Stilwell, the Cherokee Nation operates an electronic assembly plant employing 350 people, mostly Cherokees.

Not an Oil-Rich Tribe

In all of its combined businesses, the tribe employs more than 600 people. It has assets of $23 million and an annual payroll of $9 million.

“We’re not an oil-rich tribe,” Mankiller said. “Our best resource is water and the next is people. We have a lot of tenacity, a lot of cultural integrity. We have bounced back with a great deal of resilience. We’re considered to be a very progressive tribe, all on our bootstrap operations. You start something and you work like heck.”

Mankiller, who receives a $55,000-a-year salary as principal chief, currently has a study being done on the possibility of developing a Cherokee theme park in the Tahlequah area.

“It’s in the feasibility study stage right now,” she said. “I’d like it to use the Indian/cowboy heritage of eastern Oklahoma. The way I see it, if we don’t run a theme park ourselves, somebody else will do it and make us look silly.

“We’re trying to attract industry, but the best potential we have here is toward tourist development,” she explained, pointing out that the area has many camping and recreational sights. “Tourism increases here every year. We’re studying that, too. Some people accuse me of studying everything. That’s a conservative way, but I don’t see jumping into things and then finding out you’ve made a mistake.”

Mankiller admitted she has detractors who don’t believe in her self-help programs, but she is determined to continue them.

“Everybody doesn’t understand or like self-help,” Mankiller said. “The idea of individuals dealing with and solving their problems. I think it works. But some people view self-help as riling up the people. . . . I think a lot of people patronize poor people, think they should sit passively. But the potential leadership you create through developing local leaders is what I believe in. You create physical change, but you also change their own feelings about themselves and bring those communities closer together.”

Although Mankiller feels that all Native Americans need to be involved in current economic ventures, she believes they should not let go of their culture and traditions.

She is proud that many of the younger Cherokee are bilingual, speaking both their native language and English, and plans to have bilingual classes in the high school added next year. She also supports maintaining cultural heritage and tradition with powwows, Native American arts programs and theater groups, and teaching Indian culture in the schools.

Wilma Mankiller was not involved with American Indian causes until 1969, when a group of Native Americans took over Alcatraz for a year as a protest to governmental treatment of Indians.

At that point, Mankiller was a San Francisco housewife, married to a successful accountant from Ecuador, and raising two small daughters.

Although she was born in Stilwell in the Cherokee Nation, daughter of a full-blooded Cherokee father and a white mother who had 10 other children, Wilma Mankiller graduated from high school in San Francisco, where her family had been relocated by the federal government to a housing project for American Indians. She was 11 years old when the family relocated, and it was quite a shock, she says now, to go from a farm to the city life.

“Alcatraz was turning point in my life,” Mankiller said. “My brothers and sisters were involved, went over and joined the protest. And they used my house as headquarters. I did volunteer work. And I articulated a lot of the things the Indians thought. I wanted to continue on with my education and that became a beginning for me.

‘I Couldn’t Do It’

“I was married 11 years and I would have stayed married forever, if I could have,” she continued. “But I just couldn’t do it. I was getting more and more involved with community work, as community liaison for the Native American program in Oakland and going to college. I just couldn’t be myself and be married.”

Mankiller got her undergraduate degree from San Francisco State.

Of her current position as chief, she said of her ex-husband: “He wouldn’t like it at all. He’s Latin. He’s a very nice man, but he has a very different attitude about women. He thinks the primary role is of cooking and cleaning house. And the measure of worth is how clean the house is.”

When Mankiller returned to the Cherokee Nation, she began using her maiden name of Mankiller.

“When we came back, it was hard on my daughters; it was a reverse of what I went though. They were 13 and 11, but now they’re happy we’re here. Gina is 20 and a sophomore at NSU (Northeastern State University in Tahlequah). My other daughter, Felicia, is 22, married and has a baby boy. He’s 2 and speaks English and Cherokee. Our language is actually growing, not dying.”

In 1979, Mankiller quit her job with the tribe and enrolled in the University of Arkansas, 65 miles away, to work on her master’s degree in community planning.

She had finished one semester there when she had a nearly fatal auto accident and spent the next six months in a hospital. Her best friend, who was driving the other car, was killed instantly in the head-on collision.

A ‘Very Tough Lady’

The right side of Mankiller’s face was crushed, most ribs broken and both legs shattered. She has since had three reconstructive facial surgeries and 17 operations on one leg.

“I think out of all that came a very tough lady, " she said. “And the result has been very positive.”

After another year in a wheelchair and then on crutches, Mankiller postponed her graduate work and went back to work for the tribe. While working there, she met Charlie Soap, 41, who heads community development now, and the two are now engaged, planning to marry in December.

Mankiller lives 25 miles south of Tahlequah in her rural farm house--she calls it Mankiller Flats--with her two dogs, Welsh Corgies named Big Foot and Lady, and spends her little spare time reading or painting. Her mother, who returned to Oklahoma in 1975, lives nearby.

“Charlie is the nicest man I ever knew,” Mankiller said with a smile. “He’s real supportive. My daughters don’t want me to run again. And Charlie has mixed feelings about it. I’ll take his advice, but I’ll rely on my own gut feelings and my feelings about the tribe and come to my own conclusion. For the tribe, as a Cherokee citizen, Charlie would like to see me run. But he also would like me to be happy and healthy and peaceful.

“But I do a lot of things, and I have an awful lot of energy. . . . I keep a real hectic schedule, but I love my work. It’s more like a labor of love than a job.”