Last month, Mattel announced that it was releasing a doll of Mankiller, who inspired countless Native American children as a powerful but humble leader who expanded early education and rural healthcare. The creation of the doll is part of the toy company’s “Inspiring Women” series. On 6 December, the Cherokee Nation also hosted an event to to celebrate the Wilma Mankiller Barbie.
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. The social worker, who died in 2010, met snide remarks about her surname — a military title — with humour, often delivering a straight-faced response: “Mankiller is actually a well-earned nickname.”
As noted by Mattel, the Barbie doll of Mankiller portrays her dark hair, as the toy “wears a richly pigmented turquoise dress with ribbon striping that represents the four directions: north, south, east and west”. The toy also comes with a basket, with her look inspired by an iconic photo of Mankiller where she’s holding a woven basket.
However, Mattel has now faced some criticism over the doll, with people calling the toy company out for inaccuracies. Chuck Hoskin Jr, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, noted to The New York Times that the doll’s basket wasn’t authentically Cherokee. He also specified that the wrong sets of symbols used for the Cherokee language were included in the packaging of the doll. As a result, the symbols on the package read “Chicken Nation” as opposed to Cherokee Nation”.
“To someone who doesn’t read Cherokee syllabary, they’re not going to notice it,” he said. “To the Cherokee people for whom Wilma is of such enduring significance and we have such enduring love for her, to see our seal incorrect, it’s very disappointing because it would not have taken much effort or thought to avoid that.”
Hoskin specified that he learned about the creation of the doll six months ago, and that Mattel did not work directly with the Cherokee Nation. However, he specified that the company has been understanding of the criticism.
“After some of the problems were revealed, we had very good conversations with Mattel. And I think they responded internally to us in a very thoughtful way and expressed some regret for not engaging us,” he said.
The Cherokee Nation issued a statement regarding the criticism. “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.
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.
Some Cherokee women were also critical of the doll, with claims that Mattel overlooked the 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.”
Following the release of the doll in November, Hoskin had issued a statement to express how meaningful the creation was to the Cherokee Nation.
“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. She not only served in a role dominated by men during a time that tribal nations were suppressed, but she led,” he said. “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.”
Mankiller, whose likeness is on a US quarter issued in 2021, is the second Native American woman honoured with a Barbie doll. Famed aviator Bessie Coleman, who was of Black and Cherokee ancestry, was depicted earlier this year. Other dolls in the “Inspiring Women” series include Maya Angelou, Ida B Wells, Jane Goodall and Madam CJ Walker.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.