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Wilma Mankiller's U.S. quarter unveiled in Cherokee Nation celebration

Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, is being honored by the U.S. Mint with her image on the back of a limited edition quarter.
Allison Herrera
Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, is being honored by the U.S. Mint with her image on the back of a limited edition quarter.

More than 1,500 people stood in line outside the Cherokee Casino in Tahlequah on Monday to get the first quarters honoring the late Wilma Mankiller, the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Wilma Pearl Mankiller was the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma in 1945, she helped improve the lives of Cherokee people by giving them access to clean water, a better education and made them feel proud to speak and be Cherokee.

On Monday, her life and accomplishments were celebrated as part of a release of quarters bearing her image as part of the American Women Quarters Program.

In 2021, the Smithsonian Institution's American Women's History Initiative, the National Women's History Museum, and the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues all took recommendations from the public for women honorees as part of the American Women Quarters Program. The U.S. Secretary of the Treasury then selected the honorees, including Maya Angelou, Sally Ride, Adelina Otero-Warren and Anna May Wong.

In 2023, honorees of the program include Maria Tallchief, Eleanor Roosevelt, Edith Kanakaʻole, Jovita Idár and Bessie Coleman.

The Cherokee Nation adult and youth choir were part of Monday's two-hour program, and the Cherokee hymn "Beulah Land" was sung by Mankiller's granddaughter Breanna Olaya-Morton.

More than 1,500 people stood in line at the Cherokee Casino to buy the limited edition coin from BancFirst. Many of them worked with or knew Mankiller during her time in office — like George Roach, who served the tribe for 32 years.

"She was in office when I first came on," said Roach, amid the crush of people waiting to buy the quarters. "It was awesome — she would do everything she could to help you."

Brenda Toineeta Pipestem met Mankiller on a college internship, coming to Oklahoma from her Cherokee community in North Carolina as a young woman. She said it was transformational.

"Watching what she was able to do reinforced everything I had been told growing up as a young Cherokee woman in North Carolina, and that is we have the best solution to our own problems and that we are capable of being those change agents," said Pipestem.

Mankiller was a change agent. After experiencing racism and poverty in California, where she was moved as part of the federal government's program to urbanize Indigenous people, she came back to Oklahoma in 1977 and founded the community development program for the Cherokee Nation. She became the deputy chief under Ross Swimmer in 1983 and then served two terms as Cherokee Nation Principal Chief from 1985-1995.

Under her administration, citizenship tripled, education levels rose and infant mortality dropped. After she left office, she remained a strong voice for women's rights, reproductive rights and social justice for Native people worldwide.

Renowned political activist Gloria Steinem also attended the celebration on Monday. Steinem was a colleague and friend of the late principal chief. They served together on the Ms. Foundation for Women.

"She not only believed in tribal sovereignty, but in women's reproductive sovereignty," said Steinem during her remarks. "We must remember the Wilma that saw the good in people, and so may us see it in ourselves."

Mankiller and her husband Charlie Soap, worked to bring water to Cherokee citizens in Bell, Okla. People donated their time and labor to lay pipe for a shared water system and built houses as part of the community improvement program. Soap and Mankiller's stories were depicted in the film The Cherokee Word for Water, which received high praise from the American Indian Film Institute. In 2021, the Cherokee Nation passed the Mankiller-Soap Water Act, which renewed efforts to improve water quality throughout the reservation.

U.S. Poet Laureate and Muscogee Nation citizen Joy Harjo said that Mankiller wouldn't be as impressed with her image on the quarter as much as she would be witnessing the change that has taken place on the reservation today in the Cherokee Nation.

"Wilma however would appreciate that the quarter gives a face to Native people, to women and might inspire some young person to ask, 'Who is that? And what is their story?'" said Harjo during the ceremony.

Harjo read one of Mankiller's poems from a newly released book called Mankiller Poems: The Lost Poetry of the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Mankiller left office in 1995. In 1998, President Bill Clinton honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she was inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame in 2018 as one of the first female inductees.

Mankiller died in 2010.

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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