For our Fierce Female this week, we’re highlighting activist and powerhouse Wilma Pearl Mankiller; known in Cherokee as A-ji-luhsgi Asgaya-dihi. Wilma was the first ever Cherokee woman who became the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Tribe, a position she was elected into (a feat in itself!), and became a symbol for Cherokee women thanks to her glass ceiling breaking within the tribe. She was quoted saying, “Prior to my election, Cherokee girls would have never thought that they might grow up and become chief.”
Wilma was an activist, academic, social worker, author, and absolute force to be reckoned with. Hailing from Oklahoma, Wilma grew up in a home on her father’s family’s land, which was given to her ancestors in a forced assimilation by the US government – yet was not upgraded to have the amenities other homes in the area had, such as functional plumbing or electricity. Wilma grew up surrounded by strong heritage, and immersed herself in the traditions, customs, and history of her ancestral Cherokee heritage. The family was later convinced by the government to sell what they had and move into a more urban area, which was supposed to provide them more financial and educational opportunities, but ended up being the opposite.
Though her living situation was not what she had hoped for, Wilma kept herself focused and graduated high school, heading afterwards off to University in San Francisco. She got her degree while raising her three children, and continued education beyond university, heading off to another college post-grad. Wilma was determined to educate herself as much as possible, and to really dive deep into things that she was interested in. She continued to follow her passion as she began taking part in different activist movements, such as the Red Power Movement, and the American Indian Movement, where she was able to stand up for the rights of the Cherokee people as well as other tribes which took part in the movements.
Thanks to the education she received from her family in regards to her heritage, Wilma remained a strong and proud Cherokee woman, and honoured and respected her heritage and traditions. She used her passion for who she was to propel her forward to become a social worker, and to do everything she could for the children she worked with. Wilma joined campaigns to fight for her people as their land was taken from them AGAIN during the California Gold Rush, and she continued to get involved in political, social, and economic matters that were related to the Cherokee people. This caught the attention of the Chief at the time, Principal Chief Ross Swimmer, who wanted Wilma to run with him in his hopeful re-election.
The duo succeeded, and Wilma became the Deputy Principal Chief of the Cherokee Tribe, and maintained her role until Ross had passed away, at which time she succeeded him in the role. Wilma focused on healthcare, literacy, heritage, and doing everything she could think of to improve the quality of life for those around her. Wilma was a dedicated woman, who gave everything that she had to everyone around her, and wanted to show younger Cherokee women all of the opportunities that were available for them, while encouraging them to stay true to their Cherokee roots and heritage. Wilma was an inspiring woman, and definitely was one absolutely Fierce Female!
Photo By Philkon Phil Konstantin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8049289