Wilma Pearl Mankiller ( (''A-ji-luhsgi Asgaya-dihi''), November 18, 1945 – April 6, 2010) was a Cherokee activist, social worker, community developer and the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, she lived on her family's allotment in Adair County, Oklahoma, until the age of 11, when her family relocated to San Francisco as part of a federal government program to urbanize Native Americans. After high school, she married a well-to-do Ecuadorian and raised two daughters. Inspired by the social and political movements of the 1960s, Mankiller became involved in the Occupation of Alcatraz and later participated in the land and compensation struggles with the Pit River Tribe. For five years in the early 1970s, she was employed as a social worker, focusing mainly on children's issues.
Returning to Oklahoma in the fall of 1976, Mankiller was hired by the Cherokee Nation as an economic stimulus coordinator. She progressed into grant writing and by the early 1980s, was directing the newly-created Community Development Department of the Cherokee Nation. Using her expertise in preparing documentation, which she had learnt during her activist period in California, she was successful in obtaining government funds. She designed and supervised community projects that allowed rural citizens to identify their own challenges and, through their labor, participate in solving them. Her project in Bell, Oklahoma, became a successful model for later projects and was featured in a movie, while her project in Kenwood received the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Certificate of National Merit. Her management ability came to the notice of the incumbent Principal Chief, Ross Swimmer, who invited her to run as his deputy in the 1983 tribal elections. When the duo won, she became the first elected woman to serve as Deputy Chief of the Cherokee Nation. She was elevated to Principal Chief when Swimmer took a position in the federal administration of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
A member of the Democratic Party, Mankiller served as Principal Chief from 1985 to 1995. During her administration, the Cherokee government built new health clinics, created a mobile eye-care clinic, established ambulance services, created early education, and adult education programs; launched job training programs; developed revenue programs, including factories, retail stores, restaurants, and bingo operations; and established self-governance, allowing the tribe to manage its own finances. She was a tireless advocate working to improve the image of Native Americans and diligently worked to combat the misappropriation of native heritage. When she retired from politics, Mankiller returned to activism, authoring numerous books and giving lectures on health care, tribal sovereignty, women's rights, and cancer awareness. She was the author of a bestselling autobiography, ''Mankiller: A Chief and Her People'' and was honored with many local, state and national awards, including the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mankiller suffered from serious health problems throughout her life, including polycystic kidney disease, myasthenia gravis, lymphoma, breast cancer, and had two kidney transplants. She died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer.
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