Celebrating Strong Cherokee Women

Wilma Mankiller

Guest Commentary

Published March 11, 2019

During March we celebrate Women’s History Month, honoring the enormous contributions Cherokee women have made throughout our history. From Isabel Cobb, the first female physician in Indian Territory, to Mary Golda Ross, a NASA aerospace engineer who helped America win thespace race, Cherokee women have been at the forefront of defining our success. In 1851, we opened the first institute of higher education for women west of the Mississippi River. The Cherokee National Female Seminary’s curriculum was academically challenging, reflecting our tribe’s vision of strong, educated women.

Cherokee Nation is a matrilineal tribe, and reverence for women is deeply rooted in our culture.

That is why during my tenure as Principal Chief, I’ve made every effort to place talented women in leadership roles within Cherokee Nation’s government and business entities. Women lead many of our tribal programs and departments as executive directors. In fact, with women comprising about 70 percent of our nearly 4,000 employees, it’s safe to say women dominate our government workforce.

In recognition of our changing work demographic, we created a more female-friendly work environment at Cherokee Nation. We established a fully paid, eight-week maternity leave policy for expectant mothers who work for the tribe. We raised the minimum wage for all employees. These initiatives enable our staff to continue working for the Cherokee people while meeting their family obligations.

Cherokee Nation’s legislative body, the Tribal Council, is shaped in large part by Deputy Speaker Victoria Vazquez, Secretary Janees Taylor and at-large Councilors Wanda Hatfield and Mary Baker Shaw. Their leadership and vision are driving the Cherokee people into a brighter future and carrying on critical work set in motion by those who preceded them.

Chief Bill John Baker

Indeed, no discussion of Cherokee Nation’s leaders is complete without mentioning the late Wilma Mankiller, who last year was in the inaugural class of the Native American Hall of Fame. In her decade-long tenure as our Principal Chief, Mankiller was a strong, confident leader. She is now a national icon across Indian Country and America for her commitment to advance equality for all and for her empowerment of women.

March also marks the anniversary of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. At Cherokee Nation, we remain resolute in our commitment to protect women from the epidemic of domestic violence. Our ONE FIRE Victim Services office stands as a beacon of hope and safety for women and families within our tribal jurisdiction.

Cherokee women are proud and powerful people, and they propel our tribe forward. This is as true today as ever. Be sure to follow our social media accounts and join us as we share inspiring profiles of historic and modern Cherokee women throughout the month of March. I encourage you to celebrate all of the women in your life – wives, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and daughters.

Bill John Baker is principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

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