Female leaders in Oklahoma tribes say Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller was inspiring


The upcoming Wilma Mankiller quarter design. (U.S. Mint Department)

Nancy Marie Spears

The design has been chosen for the new Wilma Mankiller quarter, the third coin of the American Women’s Quarters program, that will begin circulating in 2022. 

The selection of Mankiller, who was the first female elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, was announced in June by the U.S. Mint. 

The design on the reverse side of the updated quarter features an image of Mankiller, the wind at her back, gazing to the right, into the future. Her likeness is wrapped in a traditional shawl with the seven-pointed star of the Cherokee Nation to her left, and “Cherokee Nation” written in the Cherokee syllabary below her.

Mankiller is one of five women chosen by the U.S. Mint to appear on the new American Women’s Quarters program. The others are writer, performer and social activist Maya Angelou; physicist and space pioneer Dr. Sally Ride; Santa Fe school superintendent Nina Otero-Warren and Chinese-American film star Anna May Wong. Others are expected to be chosen for the years 2023 to 2025.

The selection of Mankiller and the coin design by noted U.S. Mint sculptor Phoebe Hemphill, who also sculpted the Native American $1 coin, is a powerful moment, Oklahoma female chiefs and tribal leaders said.

Edwina Butler-Wolfe, former governor of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe and now education director of the Sac and Fox Nation, said Mankiller played a role in her gaining the confidence to become an Indigenous woman leader.

“I like the saying that Wilma used, she had said, women can help turn the world right side up,” Butler-Wolfe said. “We bring a more collaborative approach to government. If we do not participate, the decision will be made without us. And that’s so very true. And I took that to heart because you got to be at the table.”

The new quarter design, Butler-Wolfe said, shows that “our Native American women can be somebody.” 

“Wilma Mankiller made a pathway to all American Indian women who seek to take on the role of being a leader in a tribal government,” Butler-Wolfe said. 

She said that doesn’t mean she or those around her haven’t had pushback from their own communities on the issue of tribal women leadership, something usually based in societal beliefs or simply traditional reasons.

When the quarter comes out, Butler-Wolfe said, she plans to implement better teachings on Mankiller. Without Mankiller, she said, there probably wouldn’t be as many Indigenous women leaders as there are today.

Butler-Wolfe said she would like to ensure the tribe’s schools have some lessons on the life and influence of Mankiller, to bolster the scarce Indigenous education in Oklahoma.

“I see it only as promoting and inspiring kids,” Butler-Wolfe said. “Maybe one little girl sitting out there in the classroom, that may be a leader someday, we never know. I never knew I was going to be a leader.”

Women leaders are not new to the Kaw Nation, according to chairwoman Lynn Williams. She said she is the fourth woman to lead her tribe.

Williams called the upcoming quarter release “awesome” and said she met Mankiller once and they talked for a few minutes. Williams listened to Mankiller speak numerous times.

“She was a great woman,” Williams said. “You could feel a good presence around her. When she spoke, it was in such a way that she didn’t have to be harsh or anything but she could get her point across.”

Williams said having Mankiller’s face on the quarter is just going to do positive things for the tribes and young tribal citizens.

“We as Natives have been silent for far too long,” Williams said. “We want our voices to be heard. We want people to know how things really are for us. I think having her face on that quarter is just going to help us, and help our young people to realize, anybody can do whatever you set your mind and your heart to do.” 

Nancy Marie Spears, a Gaylord News reporter based in Washington, is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. For more stories from Gaylord News visit GaylordNews.net.