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US Mint releases Wilma Mankiller quarter for purchase, honoring first woman Cherokee Nation leader

Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images, FILE

(WASHINGTON) -- Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, can now be seen on U.S. quarters available for purchase.

Mankiller, an activist for Native American and women’s rights, is the third woman to have her face adorned upon a quarter as part of the American Women Quarters Program.

"Chief Mankiller was a true champion for tribal sovereignty, women’s rights, health care, education and building strong communities for the Cherokee people. Every Chief that has followed her looks to her as the standard by which their work should be measured,” Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, told ABC News Tuesday.

The new coin design shows Mankiller with a “resolute gaze to the future,” the U.S. Mint said in announcing the design.

Mankiller looks to be wearing a traditional shawl, and to her left is the seven-pointed star of the Cherokee Nation. The coin is inscribed with several phrases, including, “E Pluribus Unum,” “Wilma Mankiller,” “Principal Chief,” and “Cherokee Nation,” which is written in the Cherokee syllabary.

“Even years after her passing, Chief Mankiller is making an impact,” Hoskin said at a coin release event held by the Cherokee Nation and U.S. Mint last week.

“She’s not changing the world on this day simply because her likeness is being struck on the quarter. Her likeness is being struck on the quarter because she keeps changing the world for the better,” Hoskin added.

Mankiller served as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995. During her leadership, the nation’s population sprung from 68,000 to 170,000, according to a biography on her website.

The first woman to hold this title, Mankiller advocated throughout her tenure for improved healthcare, education and housing services. While she was principal chief, infant mortality declined and educational achievement rose across the nation, Cherokee Nation officials say.

“She was very driven on behalf of other people she was nurturing, she wanted to make people feel better. She was very approachable,” Ross Swimmer, the Cherokee Nation's former principal chief, said at the release event.

Mankiller worked with the federal government while chief, working to pilot a self-government agreement for the Cherokee Nation through the Environmental Protection Agency. She guarded centuries of Cherokee traditions, customs and legal codes while managing a budget that reached $150 million by 1995, her website says.

“Wilma suffered from several serious illnesses and was almost killed in an auto accident, but she never complained. She would never say, ‘well, I just can’t do that today, I just don’t feel like it,’ or ‘no, I’m in pain,’ you would never hear that from her. She would go right on and get done what needed to be done,” Swimmer said at the event.

“I want to leave you with my mom’s last words. In 1995, the last time she took the podium as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, she said, ‘I did what I could,’” Felicia Olaya, her daughter, said in a speech at the release event.

In 1993, Mankiller was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

After Mankiller finished her term as principal chief, President Bill Clinton honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. In 2018, Mankiller was inducted into the National Native American Hall of Fame as one of the first female inductees.

"Chief Mankiller’s efforts to inspire our Cherokee people to work together at the grass roots level to build strong communities in the spirit of “Gaudgi” is alive and well. Our Cherokee people remain organized to this day working on their own solutions and for every challenge they are confronted with, not simply content to wait for any government to come to the rescue,' Hoskin told ABC News.

Mankiller began her activism in 1969, when she began serving as director of Oakland’s Native American Youth Center, working to restore pride in Native heritage and reduce the downward spiral of Native youth who grew up in the streets.

In the late 1970s, Mankiller founded the Community Development Department for the Cherokee Nation, which focused on improving access to water and housing. A feature film was created around this work, entitled “The Cherokee Word for Water."

"Chief Mankiller is still making an impact today, because now every time a little girl sees Wilma’s face on a quarter, and reads her story, she realizes she can do it too," Hoskin said Tuesday.

Mankiller died in 2010 from pancreatic cancer.

The first coin of the American Women Quarters Program was released in January, with a quarter featuring poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.

“These inspiring coin designs tell the stories of five extraordinary women whose contributions are indelibly etched in American culture,” Alison L. Doone, the Mint's acting director, said in a statement last year. “Generations to come will look at coins bearing these designs and be reminded of what can be accomplished with vision, determination and a desire to improve opportunities for all.”

In March, Sally Ride, the first woman to travel to outer space, appeared on U.S. quarters.

Nine Otero-Warren, a leader in Mexico’s suffrage movement and the first female superintendent of Santa Fe public schools, and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood who left a legacy for women in the film industry, are both set to appear on U.S. quarters in the coming months.

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