Celebrating the Women of the Cherokee Nation

Mary Golda Ross, the first Native American aerospace engineer, at work. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

Women have always played a critical role in moving the Cherokee Nation forward. As a matrilineal tribe, Cherokee Nation reveres and prioritizes women in our homes and cultures. There are so many influential Cherokee women who have shaped my own life, especially my very first role model: my mother, Polly Teehee. 

I have seen firsthand, through my work with my mentor Wilma Mankiller—the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation—the vital role that women have played as public leaders in the Cherokee Nation’s history. Yet, the fact remains that far too many Cherokee Nation women have been undercounted, or altogether ignored, for their contributions throughout our history. 

How many among us remember Mary Golda Ross, for example, the first known Native American female engineer and great-granddaughter of Principal Chief John Ross

Ross grew up in the Cherokee Nation capital of Tahlequah, Okla., where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1928 at Northeastern State University, then Northeastern State Teachers College. She earned a master’s from the University of Northern Colorado 10 years later.

During WWII she got a job as a computer at Lockheed Corporation, later becoming one of 40 founding engineers, and the only woman, on the “Skunk Works” project. It was there that Ross and her colleagues worked on designing cutting-edge rockets for the space program, on preliminary design concepts for flyby missions to Mars and Venus, and on the Polaris reentry vehicle that was critical for pushing the United States ahead of the Soviet Union in the Cold War. 

At a time when few women were pursuing careers in the sciences, Ross’ example encouraged Native American youth to study engineering. Her example continues to speak to us today.

So does the example set by Dr. Isabel Cobb, one of the first female physicians in Indian Territory, who earned her medical degree (MD) from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1888. Dr. Belle, as she was known, returned home to Oklahoma after graduating to offer health care to underserved rural residents. Primarily treating women and children, she would travel long distances on horseback to perform at-home surgeries for her patients, often refusing to accept payment for her services.

cIsabel “Belle” Cobb, the first female doctor in Indian Territory. (Courtesy)

In my own lifetime, I have been especially grateful for the example set by Wilma Mankiller, with whom I had a formative internship at the start of my career. It was Mankiller who inspired me to pursue a career in public service. As the first woman to serve as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and the first woman elected chief of a major Native tribe, she fought to raise the voices of Native Americans who had been ignored throughout the course of American history. During the decade she led the Cherokee Nation, Mankiller fought relentlessly on behalf of her constituents for better healthcare, education and housing. 

Chief Wilma Mankiller, of the Cherokee. (Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

On Chief Mankiller’s watch, the Cherokee Nation drove down the infant mortality rate, revitalized our sovereign government, and set a new course for the future. Her work mentoring young girls was especially powerful and helped shape the lives of many. Mankiller was eventually awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—America’s highest civilian honor—for her lifetime of service.

There are countless stories of women who have, through the sheer force of their will, pushed Cherokee Nation onto a better and more prosperous path. This Women’s History Month, let us honor them and the example they have shown us. They are trailblazers who have earned our recognition, most especially for the impact they have had on opening new pathways to opportunity for young indigenous girls across the United States. 

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Kim Teehee is the Cherokee Nation’s delegate-designee to the U.S. House.