Becoming the first woman to be elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation was not an easy task. Many Cherokee voters were reluctant to elect a woman to such a high office. Though the Cherokee are historically a matriarchal society, chauvinistic proved to be a major hurdle for Mankiller. However she succeeded in winning her people over and became the first woman to be elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee.
Mankiller became interested in Native American political and social issues while living in California in the 1960s and 1970s. After her divorce in 1974 she moved with her daughters back home to Oklahoma. She began working in the Cherokee Nation as community coordinator just as the Nation was trying to operate more independently from the BIA.
In the 1980s, Ross Swimmer, who intended to run as Principal Chief, asked Mankiller to run as his Deputy Chief. She agreed but soon found that the major topic of discussion was not her political opinions but rather her gender. Mankiller worked hard to show the Cherokee people that gender was not a factor in leadership ability. She was successful and in 1983, Swimmer and Mankiller were elected as Principle Chief and Deputy Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
In 1985, when President Reagan appointed Ross Swimmer as head of the BIA, Mankiller became Principle Chief. In 1987, she ran for reelection and became the first woman to be elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee. She served as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation for 10 years. Mankiller made education and health care tribal priorities and made major strides to improve the quality of life for many Cherokees. She also oversaw a historic self-determination agreement that would make the Cherokee Nation one of six tribes responsible for BIA funds.
During her tenure, and in the years since, she has become a role model for both the Native American community and women. In 1987 she was named “Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year,” in 1990 she received the Henry G. Bennett Distinguished Service Award, and in 1998 President Clinton presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Though plagued by health problems, Mankiller remains in the public eye as an author and political speaker.