The Wilma Mankiller quarter, slated to begin circulating next year, will feature an image of the Cherokee chief, wrapped in a traditional shawl with the seven-pointed star of the Cherokee Nation to the right and “Cherokee Nation” written in the Cherokee syllabary below her name.
The wind is at her back as she gazes into the future.
The selection of Mankiller, who was the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, was announced in June by the U.S. Mint. Her quarter – which was designed by noted Mint sculptor Phebe Hemphill, who also sculpted several Code Talkers $1 coins – is the third coin of the American Women’s Quarters program.
Mankiller, who was a Medal of Freedom winner and longtime champion of the rights of Indigenous people and women, was elected chief in 1985 and led the Cherokees for a decade.
She’s one of five women chosen to appear on the new American Women’s Quarters program. The others are writer, performer and social activist Maya Angelou; physicist and space pioneer 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 was powerful, 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, she 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 on societal beliefs or simple tradition.
When the quarter comes out, Butler-Wolfe said, she plans to implement better teachings on Mankiller, who died in 2010. Without Mankiller, she said, there likely wouldn’t be as many Indigenous female 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 scant Indigenous education in Oklahoma.
“I see it only as promoting and inspiring kids,” she 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, Chairwoman Lynn Williams said, noting that she is the fourth woman to lead her tribe.
Williams, who called the upcoming quarter release awesome, said she met Mankiller once and they talked for a few minutes, and she heard 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 will 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, D.C., 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.