By David Van Biema
December 02, 1985 12:00 PM

The 160 acres the government gave to Wilma Mankiller’s grandfather in Adair County, Okla. is blanketed with oak, sycamore and dogwood. It also abounds in foxes, coyotes and deer, and because of the deer, in hunters, who show up unfailingly every year to ask Mankiller if they can stalk the land. “I always tell them the same thing,” says the 40-year-old grandmother: ” ‘Sure, you can hunt here all you want…just don’t shoot anything.’ ” Wilma Mankiller protects her own. And recently, her own has extended beyond Mankiller Flats: She will soon become the principal chief of the 68,000 member Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma—the first woman ever to head one of the country’s largest tribes.

Mankiller (a family ancestor was a renowned warrior) admits, “I’ll have to do extra well because I am the first woman.” Among the country’s second-largest tribe, there is little doubt that she will. “I have no qualms about Wilma,” says outgoing Chief Ross Swimmer, who is ceding his post to Mankiller to become Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs in Washington. “She knows her strengths and her weaknesses, and she is one sharp businesswoman.”

Mankiller’s identification of her own business with that of the tribe, which was forced by the federal government to walk the infamous “Trail of Tears” from Georgia and Tennessee to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in the winter of 1838-39, may have begun when she was 11 and her family made its own migration from rural Oklahoma to San Francisco. “One day I was here,” she remembers, “and the next day I was trying to deal with the mysteries of television, indoor plumbing, neon lights and elevators.” The Mankillers were part of a federal program to “mainstream” rural Indians into cities. “I guess,” she says cuttingly, “they thought we’d open a liquor store.”

If so, “they” were wrong. Mankiller’s father, a farmer turned warehouse worker, was “the only full-blooded Indian union organizer I ever ran into,” she says. Wilma herself studied sociology, married a wealthy Ecuadoran accountant and had two children—before 1969, when her activist genes kicked in. In that year a group of young Indian demonstrators began an 18-month occupation of the abandoned prison island of Alcatraz, and Wilma pitched in to raise funds and supplies.

“Alcatraz articulated my Indian feelings,” she says now. The young mother of two daughters, now 19 and 21, began to question the appropriateness of the life she had chosen. In 1975 she divorced her husband (“He was a nice man—but our life-styles were very, very different”) and returned to Oklahoma, she says, “just to raise my kids and build a house on my land.”

She ended up doing much more. Her success as a community planner and grant proposal writer caught Swimmer’s attention, and in 1983, with Swimmer’s support, Mankiller won a tight election to become his deputy^” chief. At the same time, she was receiving national recognition as chief organizer and guiding spirit for the rehabilitation of Bell, a rural Oklahoma slum rebuilt into a model town.

Thus, when Swimmer’s up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy brought him high office in the Reagan Administration and the tribal constitution dictated that Mankiller take over, nobody grumbled about her gender. “We are a revitalized tribe,” says Mankiller. “We have kept the best of our old way of life and incorporated the sounder elements of today’s non-Indian world.” The bookshelves in the house on Mankiller Flats are filled with works by Plato, Chaucer, Tolstoy and Kant, and she herself has published short stories, but she maintains her membership in a traditional Cherokee ceremonial society and is as likely to go to a medicine man as to a doctor. Her hero is still Chief Joseph, the brilliant Nez Percé leader of the late 1800s who resisted overwhelming forces of white soldiers before finally making his peace. “He was eloquent, poetic and brave,” Mankiller says. “That’s a pretty tough combination to beat.” And one that Mankiller will try to emulate.