Wilma Mankiller, Cherokee Nation’s first woman principal chief, to appear on U.S. quarter this year

By: - January 13, 2022 3:46 pm

U.S. quarters featuring Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, will go into circulation later this year.

The U.S. Mint will begin shipping quarters this year commemorating Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, along with four other women.

U.S. Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota asked the U.S. Mint to create the quarters honoring Mankiller following passage of a bill she cosponsored celebrating the ratification of the 19th amendment with commemorative coins featuring trailblazing women.

The first coin in that series, honoring Maya Angelou, went into distribution Monday.

“I don’t think enough people know about (Mankiller’s) story, so I’m just so happy that her amazing life can become better known among Americans because of this recognition,” Smith said.

Had Mankiller been alive when the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920, which said citizens could not be denied the right to vote based on sex, she would have had to wait another four years to vote. It wasn’t until the Snyder Act of 1924 that Native Americans were made U.S. citizens.

Mankiller was born in 1945 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation.

After a devastating drought, Mankiller’s family moved to San Francisco when she was 10 years old through the federal government’s Indian Relocation Program, which paid Native people to move from reservations to cities.

The effort was part of a larger campaign by the U.S. government during the so-called “Termination Era” of the 1950s and 60s to eliminate Native tribes and assimilate Native people into the white American mainstream.

Mankiller called the move “my own little Trail of Tears” in a 1993 New York Times interview, in reference to the forced relocation of the Five Civilized Tribes from the eastern seaboard to Oklahoma in the 1830s.

As an adult in San Francisco, Mankiller became engaged with the Red Power movement and the takeover of Alcatraz Island in 1969.

Native activists organized by a group called Indians of All Tribes held the island for 19 months, claiming it as their own because of a provision in the 1968 Treaty of Fort Laramie that stated all out-of-use federal land should return to Native people.

That time was a turning point for Mankiller, then an unhappy housewife married to a wealthy businessman.

“What Alcatraz did for me was, it enabled me to see people who felt like I did but could articulate it much better,” Mankiller told the New York Times. “We can do something about the fact that treaties are no longer recognized, that there needs to be better education and health care.”

In 1977, after divorcing her husband, Mankiller returned home to the Cherokee Nation where she founded a community development organization focused on water infrastructure and housing.

“I never felt home until I came home,” she told the New York Times. “When I came back here, then I began to understand, this is where I belong.”

She was elected as the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1985, a position she held for a decade as the tribe grew from 68,000 to 170,000 citizens, according to the National Women’s History Museum.

She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and in 1998, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then President Bill Clinton.

The Mankiller quarter was designed by Benjamin Sowards, a New Mexico-based artist who also designed the Mark Twain commemorative coin, the American Veterans Silver Medal and gold coins of Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan and Jacqueline Kennedy.

The other women being honored with quarters through 2022 are Dr. Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut; Nina Otero-Warren, a leader in New Mexico’s suffrage movement and the first female superintendent of Santa Fe public schools; and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.