Chief Wilma Mankiller

What leaders have made a difference in your life? Liz Waid and Ryan Geertsma tell the story of Wilma Mankiller, a leader for her people.

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Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Liz Waid.

Voice 2 

And I’m Ryan Geertsma. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand - no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 

In 1981, the town of Bell, Oklahoma was dying. Many of the buildings were old and ruined. There was no running water. People had to carry water from the school to their homes. This made life very difficult. Many people were leaving the town. No one thought they could make a good life in Bell.

Voice 2 

Then something changed. A woman named Wilma Mankiller arrived. She encouraged them to work together. The main need in Bell was water. But to get water, the community needed to a build a pipeline. They needed to place long pipes under the ground. The pipes would carry water into Bell. Usually big machines dig and place the pipes. This costs a lot of money.

Voice 1 

Instead, Mankiller encouraged people to dig the pipeline themselves. Local people helped to dig. They carried pipes. After eight months they had running water! But they had more than this. They had pride in their community. And they continued to do more community projects. This was just one of Wilma Mankiller’s projects. Wilma Mankiller did many wonderful things in her life. She even became the leader, or chief, of the Cherokee Nation. Today’s Spotlight is on Chief Wilma Mankiller.

Voice 2 

The Cherokee are the largest tribe of Native people in the United States. In 2010, there were over 300,000 Cherokee people in the US. They have their own government called the Cherokee Nation.

Voice 1 

Wilma Mankiller’s father was Cherokee. Her mother was from Europe. Wilma was born in 1945. She grew up in Tahlaquah, Oklahoma in the United States. Most of the people who live in this area are Cherokee. The Mankiller family lived here until Wilma was 11 years old.

Voice 2 

At that time, the US government had a new program for Native American people. They offered them jobs in the cities. The Mankiller family moved to California. There, Wilma Mankiller got married and had two daughters. But life in California was difficult. The living conditions were not very good. In 1969, Mankiller saw student groups protesting the government. They hoped to change government policies. Her family also got involved. This changed her life. In a speech at Sweet Briar College, Mankiller told how this changed her life:

Voice 3 

“From that point on I became very, very interested. I learned skills because I wanted to help my own people. So I learned how to organize things. I learned how to do paralegal work. People encouraged me to go to college.”

Voice 1 

Mankiller went back to school. During this time, her marriage ended. And she decided to move back to her home town of Tahlaquah. In Tahlaquah, Mankiller got a job in the Cherokee Nation government offices. Her job was to organize and direct community development projects with Cherokee communities.

Voice 2 

The Bell water pipeline was one of Mankiller’s projects. It was one of the many projects that demonstrated her skill for community work. She reminded the people of the Cherokee value of self-help. Mankiller talked to the Native New Network about this. She said that she felt that leadership was an important issue. Many people did not believe that Cherokee people, or poor people, could be strong leaders. She believed that Cherokee people could be their own leaders. And she believed that they could solve their own problems.

Voice 1 

During the Bell water project Mankiller met a man named Charlie Soap. A few years later, they were married. Soap encouraged her to keep using her skills to help the Cherokee people. Mankiller had a new opportunity to do this in 1983. She was asked to run for election as the deputy principal chief. This was the second leader of the Cherokee Nation. No woman had ever had such a high position in the Cherokee Nation. Mankiller wrote about these experiences in a book about her life:

Voice 3 

“I remember a man standing up in a meeting and telling me: "All the tribes will laugh at the Cherokee Nation if we elect a woman." There were many people against me. But I was elected to serve a four-year term as the first female deputy principal chief in Cherokee history. I thought this was the highest place I would reach in tribal government. But I was elected to serve as principal chief in 1987. I was the first woman to hold that position. And I was re-elected again in 1991.”

Voice 2 

Mankiller served as the principal chief for ten years. She faced many difficulties in both her personal life and her career. But Mankiller never gave up. She believed in the strength of the Cherokee people. In a speech, she used the word tenacious – she believed that her people would not stop, they were determined. She said:

Voice 3 

“Our people are very tenacious, and it was that tenacity that I saw as a strength we could build on. Another positive thing that I saw was our attention to culture and history and heritage. Another thing that I saw was great leadership in our communities. The other thing that I saw which is, I think, one of the single most important things that we continue to have as native people, and that is a sense of interdependence.”

Voice 1 

Interdependence is also the reason most people will remember Mankiller. She taught people to depend on each other, to work together, and help themselves. Mankiller died of cancer in 2010. Chad Smith, then chief of the Cherokee nation, said this about Wilma Mankiller:

Voice 4 

“We are better people and a stronger tribal nation because of her example of Cherokee leadership, humility, grace, determination and decisiveness. When we become discouraged, we will be encouraged by remembering how Wilma continued on through so many trials and difficulties.”

Voice 2 

Charlie Soap is also honouring Mankiller’s work. He is helping to make a film about Mankiller’s life. In an interview about this film he explains why she is so important to the Cherokee people:

Voice 5 

“I think it is important to remember her. When she was gone, so many people told me how they looked up to her. They told me that she made them believe: "If she can do it, we can too." It is a powerful feeling that she has left with us. And plenty of people tell me that they still feel her spirit here today,”

Voice 1 

The writer of this program was Rena Dam. The producer was Luke Haley. The voices you heard were from the United States. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can find our programs on the internet at This program is called, ‘Chief Wilma Mankiller’.

Voice 2 

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

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What leaders have made a difference in your life?


Avatar Spotlight
said on September 04, 2013

I think community work is very interesting and productive only need a great leader.

Luis Piedra's avatar
Luis Piedra
said on September 06, 2013

Wilma Mankiller struggled by his people and is well remembered by them.
Thanks Spotlight

Avatar Spotlight
said on October 08, 2014

Mankiller is a good leadership, she think about her people, her work for her community so the result in good effect.
I think everyone always works because others, the warm atmosphere around them will come true.

Avatar Spotlight
said on October 10, 2014

great story… She is a hero.

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Jimmy Roberto Espinoza Mercado
said on October 11, 2014

When thinking of Chief Wilma Mankiller is bring back the great leader of the Cherokee Nation to our minds, who will always be a reference of tenacity, service and love for community. She is a role model for the leaders who really understand their own nature. Goodbye!

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Mss Flamboyant
said on October 13, 2014

She is so lovely and respectful :) I admire her so much :)

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on September 02, 2016

From: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To: spotlight programme
Subject: answer to the question above
Date Friday 02, September 2016
São Paulo SP Brazil

Dear Liz Waid, Rena Dam, Ryan Geertsma, and Luke haley:

At first, I want to thank you to bring us readers and learners of English more one great article. Thanks!

The first leader who have helped to go ahead without fear is my GOD, thanks GOD. The second leader who have helped to learn English is the team of the spotlight. Thank you all to help me to learn you language. And the third leader who is always asking to GOD to help me in my life is my mother. Thanks mother.

Yours regards,
Severino Ramos

Kaleb Kolaibi's avatar
Kaleb Kolaibi
said on September 02, 2016

I think that there many leaders in around the world whom could influence and changed their communities, for example ;  Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and others.
For me ; there some people made a difference in my life but the Lord Jesus still number one in my life because He changed everything into me and out me and He continues in charge me everyday.
God bless you

Avatar Spotlight
said on March 06, 2020

Beautiful program today. A great leader is an expression of a great people, in its historical moment. I know very little English and to be sure I understand everything I have to help myself with a translator. I learned about the Cherokee people, in their beautiful landscapes of Oklahoma, in the central areas of the United States, which until now I only knew through western movies. Thank you.

Avatar Spotlight
said on March 06, 2020

There was once a 63-year-old man, a very long age in the 17th century. His name was Fernão Dias Paes Leme, nicknamed O Caçador de Esmeraldas. Even at that age, Fernão led a troop of adventurers and slaves to the interior of the country, looking for the “Serra das Esmeraldas”. On his epic journey, he created many cities and settlements and fought hostile Indians, wild animals, disease, rebellions on his team and so on. He even had to hang his own son, who rebelled against his orders. But nothing changed his goal. An old man with strength, power of character and commitment is the most impressive leader I know ...