TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – A standing-room-only crowd gathered in Tahlequah to celebrate the life and legacy of the Cherokee Nation’s first female principal chief, Wilma P. Mankiller, who is now immortalized on a U.S. quarter released June 6.
“She’s a legend,” Cherokee Nation citizen Henry Carey Jr., 66, of Tahlequah, said. “She deserves it. Wilma Mankiller, she was a freedom fighter, fighting way before she was chief. I really respect her. So I wanted to get some of these quarters.”
Current and past tribal leaders, Mankiller’s family, friends and hundreds of others turned out for the release of a limited number of the coins, which feature the late chief wrapped in a traditional shawl with “a resolute gaze to the future” on the reverse side.
“Wilma Mankiller demonstrated grit and determination,” current Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “She fought for justice for Native Americans. She inspired us all to do more to help ourselves as a people. She made this world a better, fairer and more just place. She did all of this, by the way, before she ever held public office.”
Mankiller, who served as principal chief from 1985-95, is noted as having fought for civil rights and equality, along with self-sufficiency for the Cherokee people. In addition, she is described as “the anchor” in establishing what has now become the largest tribal health care system in the country.
“The first woman to be elected chief of a major American Indian tribe, she revitalized the Nation’s tribal government, and advocated relentlessly for improved education, healthcare and housing services,” a biography from the National Women’s History Museum states. “Under her leadership, infant mortality declined and educational achievement rose in the Cherokee Nation.”
The Mankiller coin is one of five in the U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters series. Its design, one of three considered, includes inscriptions that read “Principal Chief” and, in the Cherokee Language, “Cherokee Nation.” According to the U.S. Mint, only two other Cherokee Nation citizens, Mary Golda Ross and Sequoyah, have coins in their names.
Mankiller, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2010 at the age of 64, remains an inspiration for many, including friend, author and feminist leader Gloria Steinem. Mankiller, Steinem noted, now has a “permanent place on a coin that will circulate among us every day and will give each of us a reason to tell her story.”
Watch replay of celebration here:
“Now we will be able to treasure the presence of Wilma’s image daily in our hands and in our hearts,” she said.
Following Mankiller’s passing, President Barack Obama said, “As the Cherokee Nation’s first female chief, she transformed the nation-to-nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the federal government, and served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she was recognized for her vision and commitment to a brighter future for all Americans.”
The June 6 celebration included a poetry reading by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo and musical performances by the Cherokee Adult Choir and Cherokee National Youth Choir with special guest Breanna Olaya-Morton, Mankiller’s granddaughter.
This article was first published in the Cherokee Phoenix.