Home National A new Barbie doll honors pioneering Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller. But it’s...

A new Barbie doll honors pioneering Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller. But it’s prompting some complicated feelings

Mattel released a Barbie doll in November commemorating the late Cherokee Nation leader Wilma Mankiller as part of its "Inspiring Women" series. (Photo: Mattel/AP)

(CNN) — Wilma Mankiller has many accomplishments to her name — the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a US quarter in her likeness, to name a few.

Now, the late Cherokee leader and activist also boasts a Barbie doll in her honor.

Toy company Mattel released a Wilma Mankiller Barbie last month as part of its “Inspiring Women” series, commemorating her lifelong advocacy for Native and women’s rights.

Many Cherokee citizens are excited about the release — the doll appears to be sold out online, while the Cherokee Nation has said there is an order backlog due to high demand. The Wilma Mankiller Barbie was also commemorated in an event on the Cherokee Nation on Tuesday.

“When Native girls see it, they can achieve it, and Wilma Mankiller has shown countless young women to be fearless and speak up for Indigenous and human rights,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement on November 7.

“Wilma Mankiller is a champion for the Cherokee Nation, for Indian Country, and even my own daughter. She truly exemplifies leadership, culture and equality and we applaud Mattel for commemorating her in the Barbie Inspiring Women Series.”

But even as they celebrate the tribute to the revered Cherokee leader who died in 2010, some Cherokee people acknowledge having complicated feelings around the Wilma Mankiller Barbie.

Some Cherokee people see a missed opportunity

The Wilma Mankiller Barbie is inspired by a 2005 portrait that is now archived in the Library of Congress. In the photo, taken by her husband Charlie Soap, Mankiller wears a black dress with colorful stripes and carries a woven basket.

The Barbie doll version of Mankiller also holds a basket and wears a turquoise dress “with ribbon striping that represents the four directions: north, south, east and west,” according to Mattel’s website.

For Julie Reed, the doll’s design represents a missed opportunity.

Reed, an associate professor of Native American and American history at Penn State University and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said the basket that comes with the doll isn’t woven in a traditional Cherokee pattern. Basket weaving is perhaps one of the most well known Cherokee handicrafts, and she added that this could have been an occasion for Mattel to partner with basket weavers in the community.

She also said she would have liked to see the doll include more features that were specific to Mankiller, such as her signature jewelry.

“Wilma Mankiller always wore jewelry — often things that were gifted to her by artisans in the community, lots of clay bead necklaces. She was one of the first major female leaders of the tribe to wear a gorget publicly,” Reed told CNN.

A Mattel spokesperson told CNN that it worked with Mankiller’s estate, which is led by her husband Charlie Soap and her friend Kristina Kiehl, on the design. The Cherokee Nation did not work with Mattel on the doll, though the tribe has said that does not diminish the significance of the tribute.

Some people also criticized Mattel for not involving Mankiller’s only surviving daughter Felicia Olaya in the design process. Though Olaya has expressed disappointment in media interviews over not being consulted, she remarked at Tuesday’s celebration on the significance of Cherokee children being able to play with Wilma Mankiller Barbies.

“I have warm thoughts at our next family gathering, which is Christmas, of my granddaughters, my nieces, many family members sitting on the floor playing with the Wilma Mankiller Barbie thinking that one day I hope that they become a leader or a Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation,” Olaya said at the event.

Involving more of Mankiller’s family, as well as the Cherokee Nation, could have further enriched Mattel’s final product, said children’s author Traci Sorell.

Mattel has also been criticized for a typo contained in the Cherokee Nation seal found on the Barbie’s packaging, which reads “Chicken Nation” rather than “Cherokee Nation.” Had Mattel sought the input of the tribe’s robust language department, the error could have been avoided, she told CNN.

“More collaboration and connection and community and communication would have helped this have a more successful launch and presentation,” said Sorell, a Cherokee citizen who has written a children’s chapter book about Wilma Mankiller.

Reed echoed that sentiment.

“I think it raises questions about how these collaborations wind up working when a corporation wants conceivably to do consultation, but doesn’t even know where to begin or doesn’t even have the right questions to ask,” she said.

A spokesperson for Mattel told the Associated Press that it was aware of the problem and was “discussing options.”

Still, many Cherokee people are celebrating the tribute

Many Cherokee people, including Reed and Sorell, count Mankiller as an inspiration.

Mankiller, whose last name signifies a traditional Cherokee military rank, was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1945 but grew up in California. She spent years advocating for Native communities in the state before returning home in 1977 to Oklahoma, where she fought for better water and housing access, according to the National Women’s History Museum.

In 1985, Mankiller became principal chief of the Cherokee Nation — a position she would hold for a decade. In that role, Mankiller typically dressed in professional attire such as suits, incorporating small nods to her Cherokee roots through her accessories, Sorell said.

While the Wilma Mankiller Barbie appears to depict a younger Mankiller, Sorell said she would have liked to see Mankiller depicted in her 40s, when she served as the tribe’s leader.

“There’s just this incredible legacy. Not that a doll is going to represent all of that legacy at all, but certainly you want to see that doll represent her in all of her power and her connection to community,” Sorell said.

Even though she feel the Wilma Mankiller Barbie fell short in some ways, Sorell said she’s happy to see one of her childhood role models celebrated on this level. She even bought a doll for herself, just to commemorate the moment.

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