Wilma Mankiller was the sixth child of eleven children. Her parents were Charley Mankiller (born November 15, 1914) and Clara Irene Sitton (born September 18, 1921). Sitton is of Dutch and Irish descent and had no Cherokee blood but acculturated to Cherokee life.
The Mankiller family lived on Charley’s allotment lands of Mankiller Flats near Rocky Mountain, Oklahoma. In 1942 the US Army declared 45 Cherokee families’ allotment lands, near those of Mankiller’s family, in order to expand Camp Gruber. The Mankillers willingly left under the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Indian Relocation Program. They moved to San Francisco, California in 1956 and later Daly City.
In 1963, at the age of 17, Mankiller married Hector Hugo Olaya de Bardi, an Ecuadorian college student. They moved to Oakland and had two daughters, Felicia Olaya, born in 1964, and Gina Olaya, born in 1966.
Mankiller returned to school, first at Skyline College, and then San Francisco State University. She had been very involved in San Francisco’s Indian Center throughout her time in California. In the late 1960s, Mankiller joined the activist movement and participated in the Occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. For five years, she volunteered for the Pit River Tribe.
After divorcing Hugo Olaya, Mankiller moved back to Oklahoma with her two young daughters in 1977, in hopes of helping her own people and began an entry-level job for the Cherokee Nation.
By 1983, she was elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation, alongside Ross Swimmer, who was serving his third consecutive term as principal chief. In 1985, Chief Swimmer resigned to take the position as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This allowed Mankiller to become the first female principal chief. She was freely elected in 1987, and re-elected again in 1991 in a landslide victory, collecting 83% of the vote. In 1995, Mankiller chose not to run again for Chief largely due to health problems.
Mankiller faced many obstacles during her tenure in office. At the time she became chief, the Cherokee Nation was male-dominated. Such a structure contrasted with the traditional Cherokee culture and value system, which instead emphasized a balance between the two genders. Over the course of her three terms, Mankiller would make great strides to bring back that balance and reinvigorate the Cherokee Nation through community-development projects where men and women work collectively for the common good,based on the Bureau of Indian Affairs "Self Help" programs first initiated by the United Keetoowah Band, and with the help of the Federal Governments Self-Determination monies. These project include establishing tribally owned businesses, such as horticultural operations and plants with government defense contracts, and improving infrastructure, such as providing running water to the community of Bell, Oklahoma and building a hydroelectric facility.
Under the US Federal policy of Native American self-determination, Mankiller was able to improve federal-tribal negotiations, paving the way for today's Government-to-Government relationship the Cherokee Nation has with the US Federal Government.
Examples of progress included the founding of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department, the revival of Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah, and a population increase of Cherokee Nation citizens from 55,000 to 156,000.
"Prior to my election," says Mankiller, "young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up and become chief."
After many years working together on Cherokee community development projects, Mankiller married her longtime friend, Charlie Lee Soap, a full-blood Cherokee traditionalist and fluent Cherokee speaker, in 1986. They live on Mankiller's ancestral land at Mankiller Flats.
She won several awards including Ms. Magazine's Woman of the Year in 1987, Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame, Woman of the Year, the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, John W. Gardner Leadership Award, Independent Sector, and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.
Her first book, Mankiller: A Chief and Her People, an autobiography, became a national bestseller. Gloria Steinem said in a review that, "As one woman's journey, Mankiller opens the heart. As the history of a people, it informs the mind. Together, it teaches us that, as long as people like Wilma Mankiller carry the flame within them, centuries of ignorance and genocide can't extinguish the human spirit." In 2004, Mankiller co-authored Every Day Is a Good Day: Reflections by Contemporary Indigenous Women.
Mankiller is sometimes incorrectly referred to as the first woman chief of a Native American tribe. In the 20th century, Alice Brown Davis became Principal Chief of the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma in 1922, and Mildred Cleghorn became the Chairperson of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe in 1976. In earlier times, a number of women led their tribes.
Mankiller's terms as chief had their controversy. Mankiller established the law that limited tribal membership by excluding the Freedmen section of Cherokee Indians listed on the Dawes Rolls, generating the later Cherokee freedmen controversy. This law was ruled unconstitutional in 2006 by the Cherokee Nation's Judicial Appeals Tribunal (now called the Cherokee Supreme Court).
Mankiller's administration was involved many conflicts with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB), the other federally-recognized Cherokee tribe headquartered in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Her administration questioned the jurisdiction of the UKB, culminating in the closure of the UKB's smoke shops.
A lawsuit was filed by the Cherokee Nation against Mankiller with allegations of embezzlement of tribal funds at the end of her final term in office. The case was regarding $300,000 paid out to tribal officials and department heads who left at the end of her term in 1995. The case, titled Cherokee Nation v. Mankiller, was withdrawn by a vote of the tribal council. 
"We've had daunting problems in many critical areas," Mankiller has been quoting as saying, "but I believe in the old Cherokee injunction to 'be of a good mind.' Today it's called positive thinking."
|Principal Chief of the Cherokee