This day in history: November 18

1945: Wilma Pearl Mankiller (Cherokee: ᎠᏥᎳᏍᎩ ᎠᏍᎦᏯᏗᎯ, romanized: Atsilasgi Asgayadihi) is honored and recognized as the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

She is also the first woman elected as chief of a major Native nation. She spent her remarkable life fighting for the rights of Native Americans.

“One of the things my parents taught me, and I’ll always be grateful . . . is to not ever let anybody else define me; [but] for me to define myself . . .”  – Wilma Pearl Mankiller

Born on November 18, 1945, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma  was the sixth of eleven children born to Charley Mankiller and Clara Irene Sitton. The surname “Mankiller,” Asgaya-dihi (Cherokee syllabary: ᎠᏍᎦᏯᏗᎯ) in the Cherokee language, refers to a traditional Cherokee military rank, like a captain or major.

She first developed her own social activism when a dramatic event changed her life. In 1969, a group of American Indians took over the federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and laid claim to it by ‘right of discovery’ to expose the suffering of American Indians. Mankiller recalled,

“. . . When Alcatraz occurred, I became aware of what needed to be done to let the rest of the world know that Indians had rights, too.”

Forever changed by Alcatraz and inspired by the women’s movement, Mankiller worked to empower the surrounding Native communities in California, serving as director of Oakland’s Native American Youth Center. She believed that restoring pride in Native heritage could reduce the downward spiral of Native youth growing up in the streets. She supported California’s Pit River Tribe in its legal battle against Pacific Gas and Electric over the rights to millions of acres of the tribal land, learning the practical applications for exercising tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. She would bring back this knowledge to her own Cherokee community.

Read more on the National Women’s History Museum