A Cherokee Barbie named Mankiller
Groundbreaking Cherokee chief is now featured in Mattel’s ‘Inspiring Women’ collection
Wilma Mankiller was the first woman to serve as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, a fierce advocate for Indigenous communities, and a winner of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.
Now Mankiller, who died in 2010, is getting her own doll. Mattel, the Barbie doll maker, unveiled its latest incarnation Nov. 7, with Mankiller as the first real-life Native woman to be featured in the Barbie “Inspiring Women” series.
To sculpt a doll that is a genuine reflection of her likeness, the company worked closely with Mankiller’s family and friends, including her husband Charlie Soap and friend Kristina Kiehl, producer of the documentary, “Cherokee Word for Water,” as well as the Mankiller estate and the Cherokee Nation.
The design is modeled after a photo taken by Soap in 2005, and features Mankiller wearing a turquoise ribbon dress and carrying a woven basket.
“I am deeply honored Mattel is recognizing Wilma with the Wilma Mankiller doll,” Soap said in a statement. “Wilma inspired me and many others to make the world a better place. As her community development partner for over 30 years, we shared a passion for empowering Indian communities and educating future generations. The Wilma Mankiller Barbie doll is an incredible tribute to Wilma that will share her legacy with even more people.”
Kiehl said Mankiller would have been pleased.
“Wilma’s impact on women’s rights and her strength to break down barriers continues to be an inspiration for women and girls in Native communities throughout our world,” Kiehl said. “Barbie celebrating her legacy with the Wilma Mankiller ‘Inspiring Women’ doll continues to share her story with so many others for years to come.”
To honor Mankiller’s dedication to Native and women’s rights, Barbie will contribute $25,000 to the American Indian Resources Center, to support initiatives dedicated to empowering Indigenous women and girls and fostering cultural preservation and traditions within the community.
Mankiller was born Nov. 18, 1945, in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the sixth of 11 children to Charley Mankiller and Clara Irene Sitton.
In the mid-1950s, the family was relocated to San Francisco under a program operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Inspired by the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 and the women’s movement, she grew up to serve as director of Oakland’s Native American Youth Center and helped the Pit River Tribe fight Pacific Gas and Electric over millions of acres of land.
She returned to Oklahoma with her two daughters in 1976 at age 31, after a divorce, and created the Community Development Department for the Cherokee Nation.
She was elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1983, and became chief in 1985 when then-Principal Chief Ross Swimmer left to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She was the first woman elected to either position.
She was elected principal chief in 1987 and again in 1991, before leaving office in 1995. As principal chief, Mankiller revitalized the Nations tribal government, and advocated relentlessly for improved healthcare, and housing services. Under her decade-long leadership, infant mortality declined, and educational achievement rose in the Cherokee Nation.
Her legacy was marked by her commitment to Cherokee self-determination and the cultural value of Gadugi — a Cherokee word that describes the community working together for the greater good.
Her work bringing together a community to build a water line for Bell, Oklahoma, was featured in the film, “The Cherokee Word for Water,” and her likeness was featured on a U.S. quarter released in 2022.
Barbie debuted the “Inspiring Women” series in 2018, paying tribute to women who were heroines of their time. It honors women who took risks, changed lives and paved the way for new generations of girls.
Mankiller will join three other women honored in the series this year – renowned Cuban singer Celia Cruz, Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong and African-American aviator Bessie Coleman. Last year, the series recognized Ida B. Wells, Dr. Jane Goodall and Madam C.J. Walker for their impact on civil rights, conservation, and female entrepreneurship.
Other women honored in the series include Maya Angelou, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Billie Jean King, Ella Fitzgerald, Florence Nightingale, Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart, Katherine Johnson, Frida Kahlo, Rosa Parks and Sally Ride.
Mattel has created generic Native women dolls in the past, including creating a Pocahontas Barbie to coincide with the release of the animated Disney film in 1995, and a “Princess of the Navajo” Barbie. Some of their creations have prompted Native artists and creators to make their own versions, including Navajo weaver Barbara Teller Ornelas, who hand-wove three dresses for the Navajo Barbie.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said the recognition of Mankiller will help inspire other Native women and girls.
“When Native girls see it, they can achieve it, and Wilma Mankiller has shown countless young women to be fearless and speak up for Indigenous and human rights,” Hoskin said in a statement.
“She not only served in a role dominated by men during a time that tribal nations were suppressed, but she led,” he said. “Wilma Mankiller is a champion for the Cherokee Nation, for Indian Country and even my own daughter. She truly exemplifies leadership, culture and equality and we applaud Mattel for commemorating her in the Barbie Inspiring Women Series.”
She died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer after years of battling health problems.