In 1978 Mankiller was told she would never walk again after an automobile accident shattered her legs, broke her ribs, and crushed her face. After 17 operations she recovered but became stricken with the neuromuscular disease myasthenia gravis. Her recovery garnered international recognition, and she became a spokesperson for the Myastenia Gravis Foundation.
“I advise young people to always be fully engaged. Speak out against injustice. Don’t lead a moderate life. Don’t let society define who they are. No one needs to waste their lives living someone else’s dreams.”
-Wilma Mankiller, 2006
Oklahoma native Wilma Pearl Mankiller was born at the Indian Hospital in Tahlequah and moved with her family to California as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Relocation Program when she was only twelve. In the mid-1970s she returned to Oklahoma to her father’s land and began actively working for the Cherokee people through her employment at the Cherokee Nation. She was a graduate student in 1978 at the University of Arkansas when she was severely injured in a car accident. After a full recovery from the accident she returned to work with the Cherokee Nation in 1981 and was named the first director of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department and became Deputy Chief of the Cherokees in 1983, the first time a woman had held such a position. She became the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation on December 5, 1985, was re-elected in 1987, and won by a land-slide again in 1991, receiving 82.7% of the vote. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 and authored such works at Every Day is a Good Day (2004), and Mankiller: A Chief and Her People (1993).