Mixed Emotions Surround Barbie Doll Honoring Iconic Cherokee Leader

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An iconic chief of the Cherokee Nation, Wilma Mankiller, inspired countless Native American children as a powerful but humble leader who expanded early education and rural healthcare.

Her reach is now broadening with a quintessential American honor: a Barbie doll in the late Mankiller’s likeness as part of toymaker Mattel’s “Inspiring Women” series.

A public ceremony honoring Mankiller’s legacy is set for Tuesday in Tahlequah in northeast Oklahoma, where the Cherokee Nation is headquartered.

Mankiller was the nation’s first female principal chief, leading the tribe for a decade until 1995. She focused on improving social conditions through consensus and on restoring pride in Native heritage. She met with three U.S. presidents and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

She also met snide remarks about her surname — a military title — with humor, often delivering a straight-faced response: “Mankiller is actually a well-earned nickname.” She died in 2010.

The tribe’s current leader, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr., applauded Mattel for commemorating Mankiller.

“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,” Hoskin said in a statement. “Wilma Mankiller is a champion for the Cherokee Nation, for Indian Country, and even my own daughter.”

Mankiller, whose likeness is on a U.S. quarter issued in 2021, is the second Native American woman honored with a Barbie doll. Famed aviator Bessie Coleman, who was of Black and Cherokee ancestry, was depicted earlier this year.

Other dolls in the series include Maya Angelou, Ida B. Wells, Jane Goodall and Madam C.J. Walker.

The rollout of the Barbie doll featuring Mankiller wearing a ribbon skirt, black shoes and carrying a woven basket has been met with conflicting reactions.

Many say the doll is a fitting tribute for a remarkable leader who faced conflict head-on and helped the tribe triple its enrollment, double its employment and build new health centers and children’s programs.

Still, some Cherokee women are critical, saying Mattel overlooked problematic details on the doll and the packaging.

“Mixed emotions shared by me and many other Cherokee women who have now purchased the product revolve around whether a Wilma Barbie captures her legacy, her physical features and the importance of centering Cherokee women in decision making,” Stacy Leeds, the law school dean at Arizona State University and a former Cherokee Nation Supreme Court justice, told The Associated Press in an email.

Regina Thompson, a Cherokee basket weaver who grew up near Tahlequah, doesn’t think the doll looks like Mankiller. Mattel should have considered traditional pucker toe moccasins, instead of black shoes, and included symbols on the basket that Cherokees use to tell a story, she said.

“Wilma’s name is the only thing Cherokee on that box,” Thompson said. “Nothing about that doll is Wilma, nothing.”

The Cherokee language symbols on the packaging also are wrong, she noted. Two symbols look similar, and the one used translates to “Chicken,” rather than “Cherokee.”

Mattel spokesperson Devin Tucker said the company is aware of the problem with the syllabary and is “discussing options.” The company worked with Mankiller’s estate, which is led by her husband, Charlie Soap, and her friend, Kristina Kiehl, on the creation of the doll. Soap and Kiehl did not respond to messages left by the AP.

Mattel did not consult with the Cherokee Nation on the doll.

“Regrettably, the Mattel company did not work directly with the tribal government’s design and communications team to secure the official Seal or verify it,” the tribe said in a statement. “The printing mistake itself does not diminish what it means for the Cherokee people to see this tribute to Wilma and who she was and what she stood for.”

Several Cherokees also criticized Mattel for not consulting with Mankiller’s only surviving child, Felicia Olaya, who said she was unaware of the doll until about a week before its public launch.

“I have no issues with the doll. I have no issues with honoring my mom in different ways,” said Olaya, who acknowledged she and Soap, her stepfather, are estranged. “The issue is that no one informed me, no one told me. I didn’t know it was coming.”

Olaya also wonders how her mother would feel about being honored with a Barbie doll.

“I heard her once on the phone saying, ‘I’m not Princess Diana, nor am I Barbie,’” Olaya recalled. “I think she probably would have been a little conflicted on that, because my mom was very humble. She wasn’t the type of person who had her honorary degrees or awards plastered all over the wall. They were in tubs in her pole barn.”

“I’m not sure how she would feel about this,” Olaya said.

Still, Olaya said she hopes to buy some of the dolls for her grandchildren and is always grateful for people to learn about her mother’s legacy.

“I have a warm feeling about the thought of my granddaughters playing with a Wilma Mankiller Barbie,” she said.

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