In Wilma Mankiller We Trust: Convincing the U.S. Treasury to Celebrate Women

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WILMA MANKILLER ON 20I’m asking you to add your voice to a movement. It’s called “Women on 20s,” and its goal is to put a woman’s face on paper currency. The process for change is simple: A sitting United States president can change a bill’s portrait with the stroke of a pen. When a young girl asked President Obama to do this, he said he thought it was “a pretty good idea.” The Women on 20s movement hopes to be the catalyst that compels this historic change by 2020, which is the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. I’m asking you to help them succeed, and working together we can put Wilma Mankiller’s likeness on the $20 bill.

The Women on 20s movement was already working for change when President Obama expressed his support to the inquisitive young lady. Founded by Barbara Ortiz Howard, Women on 20s began their efforts by consulting friends, academics, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame for help selecting 100 women who have passed on and left behind a legacy that deserves to be considered by the U.S. Treasury. They then ranked each woman using a point scale that accessed both the candidate’s impact on society and the obstacles she overcame. Once the points were tallied, the top 15 women qualified for a primary round of voting, where people voted on their favorite candidate on the Women on 20s website. The top three moved on to the final round of voting. The winning candidate’s name will be forwarded to President Obama with the suggestion that he use his office to put her portrait on the $20 bill in place of Andrew Jackson. Women on 20s selected Jackson for removal because he was the president whose “mass relocation of Indians resulted in the deaths of thousands from exposure, disease and starvation during the westward migration,” which now is known as the Trail of Tears. Yet despite their rationale for removing Jackson from the $20 bill, no Native women qualified for Women on 20s’ primary round of voting.

Still, Barbara Ortiz Howard is the best kind of person. She’s a Cuban American who runs a building restoration company in the New York area, and I’ve come to know her as a tireless and genuine advocate for all women. What especially impressed me about Howard is that her determination and persistence are equaled by her willingness to listen to feedback. When I contacted her about Women on 20s overlooking Native women, she said that I was not alone in bringing this to their attention and that they were taking steps to correct it. In subsequent phone interviews, Howard stated that Native people were the “last people we ever wanted to offend. They’re the people who were hurt by [the Jackson bill] all along.” The organization’s initial list of 100 women included Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee), Sarah Winnemucca (Paiute), Pocahantas (Powhatan), and Sacagawea (Lemhi Shoshone). Mankiller’s tally, however, was the highest, placing her amongst the top 30 candidates. In late March, Howard called me to say that her organization reconsidered Mankiller’s impact, and I’m pleased to report that she is now the fourth woman to advance to the final round.

A descendant of those who walked the Trail of Tears, Wilma Mankiller (1945–2010) deserves to be celebrated. Women on 20s cites her qualifications as being the “First female chief of the Cherokee Nation. Her 10-year administration from 1985–1995 reinvigorated the Nation through extensive community development, self-help, education and healthcare programs for 139,000 residents.” Soon thereafter, Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Chippewa) lent her support to Mankiller in a New York Times op-ed stating, “In America, the most widely recognized Native American women are the ones who contribute to the national mythos (in story) by assisting white men in the business of taking Indian land — Pocahontas and Sacagawea. Wilma Mankiller was another kind of woman entirely, and she was a hero. It would be poetically just for her to replace Jackson.”

Moreover, no one needs to be elevated more than Native women. They have a 50% higher rate of sexual assault than any other ethnicity, while 39% have identified themselves as being victimized by an intimate partner. At least 70% of the violent victimizations they’ve experienced are committed by persons not of the same race. Native women have been marginalized to the darkest corners and their deplorable treatment will take a multifaceted approach to correct. Yet many Native women have overcome the statistics and changed their communities, preserved their culture, and led their nations. We need to champion these women’s success and remind the American over-culture that Native women have always and will always make this country a better place for us all.

Placing a Native woman on the $20 bill may seem like a small gesture, but it’s a symbolic step on a path that America desperately needs to travel. Our country has created a culture where a woman’s role is secondary to a man’s in the bedroom, boardroom, governmental agencies, and even in conversations about women’s health and physical well-being. This backwards thinking is thwarting America’s progression, and women must be elevated to stop apathy towards gender inequality from poisoning the next generation. While our nation’s youth may not understand the complexities of the problem they’re on track to inherit, they can thumb through our currency and spot who’s missing. It’s an absence that speaks volumes to children, and it’s a tangible reminder that our government isn’t doing enough to celebrate women.

So I’m asking you to lend your voice to the Women on 20s movement. I want you to click on the link below and vote for Wilma Mankiller. Spread the word so that others will follow. Together, we can help influence President Obama to make a change that will impact and inspire generations to come. Please join me in saying that our patriarchal country would be better off when everyday business, such as a cash transaction, helps to remind us that women are heroes too. And who better to prompt us than Wilma Mankiller?

Here’s the link:

Ryan Winn is the Humanities Department chair at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.


Erdrich, L. (2015, March 20). Louise Erdrich on Wilma Mankiller, the First Female Cherokee Chief. New York Times. Retrieved March 2015 from:

Eugenios, J. (2014, July 31). Women on U.S. Currency? ‘A Pretty Good Idea,’ Says Obama. Retrieved March 2015 from:

The Facts on Violence Against Native American Indian/Alaskan Native Women. (2015). Futures Without Violence. Retrieved March 2015 from:

Meacham, J. (2008). American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. New York: Random House.

Women on 20s. (2015). Retrieved March 2015 from:

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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