Wilma Mankiller in her home in Tahlequah in 1996. Kelly Kerr/Tulsa World

Wilma Mankiller was an activist, an educator, an author, a mom, and the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. She did her part to share the rich, tragic, and resilient history of her people with the world, to improve the lives of her tribe, and speak out for civil and women’s rights. To say “what didn’t kill her made her stronger” isn’t hyperbole. She’s also the most contemporary woman that we’ve ever covered. Maybe if we start by keeping the stories of these smart, brave, and determined women at the forefront they will be household names to future generations.

We do begin this episode with a quick refresher on the horrific treatment that Native Americans received by the invaders of their land. We thought that it’s important to know the ancestral framework that Wilma built her life around.

Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born on November 18, 1945, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. She was the sixth of eleven children of Charly and Clara Mankiller. Wilma spent her early life on the rural land that had been in her family for generations, but a move to San Francisco when she was 10 was like being dropped into a foreign and hostile country.

Wilma found comfort in the confusing world at the San Francisco Indian Cultural Center. The people there connected her with her past and guided her into her future. A marriage to a handsome, well-off Hugo Olaya (not Bardi) gave her two daughters, but after being an integral part of a Native American occupation of Alcatraz island,  the pull of devoting her life to improving conditions for others won over a traditional, housewife life. Divorce it is!

A move back to her home in Oklahoma, a job at the Cherokee Nation and a horrific accident transformed her into a focused, level-headed, empathetic, and compassionate leader. She believed that the best people to help the Cherokee people were the Cherokee people and that she could help them do just that. Within just a couple of years, she was the first woman Deputy Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation…and two years after that? Principal Chief. She won two more terms and when she retired had served the tribe for 17 years and become a nationally known spokesperson for Native American and women’s rights; her list of honors was only exceeded in number by her list of accomplishments.

And did we mention that she did it all while raising two daughters, meeting and marrying a handsome man who shared her passions, writing books, battling kidney disease, lymphoma, Myasthenia Gravis, and pancreatic cancer? “Remarkable” doesn’t begin to cover who she was.

Wilma Mankiller died on April 6, 2010, of pancreatic cancer. She is buried in Echota Cemetery in Stillwell, Oklahoma. Her husband, Charlie Soap, her two daughters, Felicia and Gina, and (wow) her mother, Irene are all still alive–which is pretty different for us, but Wilma’s story needs to be told and not just during Native American Heritage Month.



Autobiography with Michael Wallis


Kid book that opens the “wrong” way by Doreen Rappaport and Linda Kukuk


Neither of us tried this, but you can and report back. Thanks!


Wilma, and Gloria and many more amazing women (the book Susan now owns.)


The lives of contemporary Native American women.


Cherokee Nation Museums: This link will take you to the hub for all (there are a lot) of the Cherokee Nation museums in Oklahoma. They also have a YouTube channel that will teach you to pronounce Cherokee words.

Interview with Charlie Soap:


PBS documentary on Wilma (this may expire in early December 2019, so you may have to look elsewhere for it, it’s very good.)

Cherokee Word for Waterfeature film can be streamed via this link to the Wilma Mankiller Foundation website for $4.99.



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