All in a name

Until someone pointed it out to me a few years ago, I honestly hadn’t noticed that there were no women on U.S. currency (I know. MAJOR OVERSIGHT). I’m the kind of person who likes to organize her cash by amount, direction, and letter. It’s something I’ve done for years but apparently I’ve never paid attention to the actual people on the bills. I mean, it’s not like their faces aren’t enormous. I seriously doubt Franklin would be pleased with how blown up his face is on the $100 bill. It’s not flattering. I’m always surprised by how little people know about the money in their pocket. I think we’ve all heard that a strong majority of all bills have a trace of cocaine on it, not to mention fecal matter. Other fun facts: paper money can hold the flu virus for two weeks, the average lifespan of a dollar bill is around 2 years, almost 50% of bills printed are $1 bills. Contrary to popular belief, there has been a woman on paper currency before (Martha Washington), however, there has never been a minority. There have been signatures of five African Americans over the years who served as Registrars of the Treasury or Treasurer of the U.S. (this fact I did have to google) but no portraits. One of the best museum tours I ever took was to the U.S. Treasury in D.C. You can imagine my glee when my mother bought me a pen that was stuffed with shredded old dollars (I still have it in storage after 20 years).   All this to say, when I heard about the vote to put a woman on the $20 bill, I was INTO IT. I was delighted with the options too: Harriet Tubman (who ultimately was chosen), Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, and Wilma Mankiller. I knew the first three pretty well but I was only familiar with Chief Mankiller’s name so I immediately googled her. I wanted to make sure I made a conscientious choice before I started pushing for one candidate over another.


Every single article about Wilma Mankiller starts with a variation of the same sentence: Wilma Mankiller was the first woman principal chief for the Cherokee Nation. I don’t blame them. That is a helluva sentence. It’s not exactly correct but it is amazing that a woman led one of the largest tribes in the country.


Chief Wilma Mankiller’s family moved to San Francisco during WW2 when the U.S. Army wanted to expand their base in Oklahoma. In case you are curious, her last name represents a traditional Cherokee military rank. Chief Mankiller got involved in activism during the Occupation of Alcatraz, when 89 American Indians tried to reclaim the island (this is a fascinating story that deserves a movie). She also volunteered with the Pit River Tribe. She moved back to Oklahoma in 1977 with her daughters in order to work with her own tribe. ((Fun fact: she went to graduate school at the University of Arkansas! Woo pig!)

Once she returned to Oklahoma, she started working for the tribe as a tribal program developer. She ran and won for deputy Chief in 1983. When the principal Chief left to become the Assistant Secretary of US Bureau of Indian Affairs, she was named the first female Chief. If that wasn’t awesome enough, she ran and won in two subsequent elections. As Chief, she increased the Cherokee population from 55,000 to 165,000, encouraged community development including tribally-established businesses, improving infrastructure, and building a hydroelectric facility, several homes, health centers, and children’s programs. This is just the tip of the iceberg. She won SO many awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Elizabeth Blackwell Award.


If she had been chosen to grace the $20, she wouldn’t have been the first Native American woman on the U.S. currency. That honor went to Sacagawea on the gold dollar but if Chief Mankiller had been on the $20, she would replaced the President who signed and passed the 1830 Removal Act, which inevitable caused the Trail of Tears (which her great-grandfather walked). President Jackson sent troops to force almost 20,000 Cherokee to walk over 1,000 miles to migrate to Oklahoma area designated for them with very few supplies, clothes, or food, resulting in over 4,000 deaths of starvation, disease, and exposure to extreme weather. Chief Mankiller replacing President Jackson would have felt just.

I’ll admit it. I voted for all four women. At least once. Maybe 10 times. Maybe more. How could I help myself? These ladies were awesome.


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