Wilma Pearl Mankiller, born in Oklahoma in 1945 of mixed parents, was an activist, social worker, community developer and the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Wilma did not grow up in Oklahoma; in 1956 the federal government moved her family to San Francisco as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program. The family did not want to leave but had no choice. Wilma, mocked at school for her name and her background, kept running away, until finally her parents sent her to live on a farm with her maternal grandfather. She married at 18, had two children, and started college. She also got involved in Native American politics, to the displeasure of her husband. They divorced, and she took her daughters with her back to Oklahoma. She built a home on her ancestral land and went to work for the Cherokee Nation government.
In 1979, Wilma survived a near-fatal auto accident requiring seventeen operations and donated kidneys. Eighteen months later she returned to work at a job developing projects to help rural Cherokee communities. She let the residents define their own needs, only advising them how to go about meeting them. As Doreen Rappaport observed in an Author’s Note at the end of the book:
“Wilma Mankiller represents the best of what a leader can be – she respected people and trusted that, regardless of their economic circumstances, they were capable of solving their problems and figuring out what needed to be done to change and better their lives.”
In 1983, Cherokee Chief Ross Swimmer asked Wilma to run with him as his Deputy Chief in the election for leadership of the Cherokee Nation. They won, and when Chief Swimmer left in 1985 to work in Washington, Wilma became the first female Principle Chief of the modern Cherokee Nation, the second largest tribe in the United States. Two years later she ran on her own and succeeded against stiff opposition. She said:
“Prior to my election, young Cherokee girls would never have thought that they might grow up to be chief.”
She accomplished a great deal, including, although it is not mentioned in the book, her 1990 signing of an unprecedented Cherokee Nation self-determination agreement with the federal government. This agreement gave the Nation control of its funding, programs and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Sadly, she suffered an early death in 2010 at age 64. But, the author writes, Wilma showed, in her own words:
“Women can help turn the world right side up. We bring a more collaborative approach to government.”
The book concludes with an Author’s Note, Illustrator’s Note, a timeline of events in Wilma’s life, a brief pronunciation guide and selected references.
Illustrator Linda Kukuk, a native Oklahoman of Choctaw ancestry, uses bright and detailed watercolors to depict Wilma’s life. She describes the research she did to make sure her artwork reflected the true spirit of Wilma Mankiller, observing: “Without fail, every person I spoke with who had known Wilma thought of themselves as her ‘best’ friend. To me, that shows the warmth of character she possessed.”
Evaluation: Doreen Rappaport is one of my favorite authors for kids. She focuses on people who exhibited courage and took chances in life, helping kids see the possibilities in their own lives. She also incorporates many of her subjects’ own words into her text. Her books not only entertain, but inspire and challenge.
Published by Disney Hyperion, 2019