Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller

If an online advocacy group has its way, the face of President Andrew Jackson will be whisked off the $20 bill and replaced by the countenance of a preeminent American woman. And Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, is among the top picks.

After a series of online balloting, Women On 20s announced this week the final four in its push to get a woman on the $20: Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Mankiller. WO2 says on its website that more than 250,000 people responded to its poll, which initially included 15 well-known women.

WO2 indicates it aims to get a woman on U.S. paper currency by 2020 – the centennial anniversary of ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Once the top contender is selected, WO2 organizers say they’ll lobby President Obama to push the federal government into action.

Although Parks, Tubman and Roosevelt finished at the top of the survey, Mankiller, who was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1998, was added after many respondents pointed out a Native American should be included – especially given the identity of the man she might replace.

Jackson, who gained initial fame as a military commander with populist roots, was the seventh president of the U.S. But here in Cherokee County and elsewhere in Indian Country, he’s reviled as the spearhead behind the “Indian Removal Act of 1830.” That congressional mandate forced the Cherokees and other tribes onto the notorious “Trail of Tears,” the westward march that killed thousands.

Mankiller, who died in 2010, was the first woman chief of a major American Indian nation. Her story of how she pulled herself up by the bootstraps out of abject poverty is known to everyone in this area. During the 1980s, she melded a connection to her humble roots with her business and organizational acumen to help launch the Bell Project in Adair County, which provided clean drinking water and indoor plumbing to many Native homes. That story was recently detailed in the motion picture, “The Cherokee Word for Water.” While working on the Bell project, Mankiller met the man she later married: Charlie Soap, a traditional Cherokee community organizer and another member of the small group of volunteers. To the shock of skeptics, they finished the 16-mile pipeline in eight months.

Mankiller later became deputy chief under Ross Swimmer, and when he left that post to become undersecretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, she ascended to the chief’s slot. Two years later, in 1987, she was elected, and then re-elected in 1991.

Gina Olaya, one of Mankiller’s two daughters, works for Cherokee Nation Businesses and lives in Tahlequah.

Several people have mentioned the movement to her on her Facebook page.

“It’s always an honor when Mom’s legacy is recognized, locally or nationally,” Olaya told the Daily Press. “I don’t know much about this organization, or how far this campaign will go in terms of being seriously considered by the federal government. I do know that any positive press about a Native American usually sheds a positive light on Native tribes in general. For this alone, I know Mom would be proud.”

Women On 20s was founded by Barbara Ortiz Howard. According to her bio on the group’s website, Howard canvassed for Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign.

She also owns an exterior building restoration company in New York City. Though the WO2 website doesn’t list a physical address, it says it holds 501c3 nonprofit status and accepts tax-deductible donations through the site.

The WO2 website lists several team members, including print journalist Susan Ades Stone; digital/web designer John Edmond; artist and creative consultant Carolyn Agis; Molly Murphy MacGregor, an educator who helped found the National Women’s History Project and is now its executive director; and Jill Tietjen, an engineer and author.

Most Oklahoma media thus far have been unable to secure comments from WO2 team members on their mission, but Howard did sit for a CBS News interview last month. “There are no women on the money and I thought ‘Gee, this is a crazy omission,’” she said.

The federal government has thus far not taken an official position on the campaign.

This isn’t the first time an advocacy group has tried to get another face on U.S. currency. Various Republicans in Congress have tried to push measures to get former President Ronald Reagan on paper money – including the $50, $20 and $10 bills. Former President Ulysses S. Grant is on the $50; Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father as well as the founder of the nation’s financial system and its first secretary of the treasury, is on the $10.

That bill is slated for a makeover in 2020.

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