Wilma Mankiller may not be a familiar name to most, but the People of the Cherokee Nation will never forget their first and only female chief — and a new film ensures her legacy.
Written history records a long and respected list of Cherokee tribal leaders, both before and since the infamous march known as the Trail of Tears. All of them have helped maintain their nation’s unique identity. But to this day, Wilma Mankiller remains the first and only female principal chief of the Cherokee.
She served from 1985 to 1995. But that’s not the subject of the recent film The Cherokee Word for Water. Instead, the film focuses on one of Mankiller’s earliest and greatest accomplishments: the completion of the nearly 20-mile Bell Waterline Project in eastern Oklahoma in the early 1980s, all with volunteer labor.
At the time, Bell, a rural community of some 350 people, had little access to inside running water — no faucets, showers, or toilets. The only source of water for the entire community was a lone spigot at the school. Unable to persuade local or state authorities to correct the injustice, and with the school on the verge of closing, the Cherokee Nation assigned Mankiller and her then-co-worker Charlie Soap to work together to try to bring water to Bell, and to keep the school open.
Mankiller was confident and determined to succeed. Then employed as director of the Cherokee Nation Development Department, she deeply believed her people deserved a better life — one with modern conveniences and access to basic necessities. And she was willing to work tirelessly for the right. She and Soap began by asking the community what they wanted most. “Ama!” — the Cherokee word for water — came the answer. Mankiller suggested that if the community would agree to work together as volunteers, the tribe would provide equipment and technological assistance.
Film producer Kristina Kiehl met Mankiller while Kiehl was working with Gloria Steinem. The two became close friends and Kiehl would eventually become involved in Mankiller’s campaigns for chief. “The more I learned about Wilma as our friendship grew, the more I realized the Bell Project was a story that had to be told,” Kiehl says. “Others thought so, too, but always wanted to make it about [Mankiller]. [But] she wanted the focus to be on the community, on larger issues. None of what ensued could have ever come to life without Charlie, however. Wilma’s optimism and Charlie’s bilingual skills allowed them to do together what no one thought possible.”
Sadly, Mankiller succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2010, leaving an immeasurable contribution and an open door for other Native American women to walk through. She worked on the film project for 21 years, never seeing it to fruition.
“Wilma wanted the film because public perception drives public policy,” Kiehl says. “America’s leaders had no experience with contemporary Native peoples. She wanted them and other Indians to see the resilience and be inspired by what communities can do. Now, her husband, Charlie, [who is] coproducer and director, carries her dreams.”
Thirty years have not diminished Soap’s drive or commitment. In fact, he ran for chief of the Cherokee Nation, the country’s largest tribe, in the June 2015 election, though his campaign was unsuccessful. But, like Mankiller, he wants the focus not on himself but on the larger issues. The film’s emphasis on cooperation among people inspires him — even more so, the way in which it has already influenced minority communities around the world.
“You have to remember the situation,” Soap says. “The people of Bell [95 percent Cherokee, 5 percent white] were isolated and poor, their lives difficult. The waterline project gave them confidence. Step by step, Wilma and I had to gain their trust, and they had to learn to trust each other. Earlier, they’d been disappointed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Housing Authority. We revived the concept of gadugi, the Cherokee word for people working together to solve problems.”
Those days are still vivid in Soap’s mind 30 some years later. He recounts how at one of the community meetings, a white resident asked, “When do I get my water?” He answered: “Government funds are for Cherokee families only.” A full-blood stood up in response and said, “That’s not right. They’re our friends and neighbors.” The community actually managed to raise the money so whites could get in on the waterline. That was just the beginning: The momentum generated by the Bell Project’s atmosphere of caring and shared responsibility created a movement.
“We started to rebuild and remodel existing houses,” Soap says. “Even better, the people built 21 new homes, all self-help, plus hired carpenters, plumbers, and electricians. Following that, volunteers built a community center for our youth and elderly — a place to gather and learn. From there, another nearby town built a ball field. What evolved was leadership. These experiences gave others the idea to run for office. The community changed.”
With financial support from the likes of Maggie Eastwood and Bill and Hillary Clinton, to name a few; technical support from Pixar; sound by Skywatcher Ranch; and a song donated by Bonnie Raitt, the film project grew. It was funded in part by the Wilma Mankiller Foundation, a 501(c)(3) created so that the film’s profits could be applied to economic development, media, and education in Indian country.
Brought to life in part by Soap and a crew of outstanding creatives, such as executive producers Laurene Powell and Paul Heller (producer of the Academy Award-winning My Left Foot), The Cherokee Word for Water rings true with actress Kimberly Norris Guerrero (Cherokee, Colville, Salish-Kootenai) playing a passionate young Mankiller, and actor Moses Brings Plenty (Lakota) portraying the young Soap.
It was shot on location in Oklahoma, with six key roles filled by professional actors and the rest undertaken by local community members who had never acted before. If the film feels authentic, it is: Many of the extras actually lived the story in the ’80s. In one memorable scene, a discouraged Soap, overwhelmed by challenges, turns to a tribal elder, his grandfather (played by Oren Lyons, a world indigenous leader), seeking counsel. Soap’s grandfather reminds him of how the buffalo survives a blizzard: “Cows feel a big storm coming, they head away from it. They’re trying to get away, but they’re moving in front of it, you know. It stays with them. ... Buffalo, he’s different. He puts his head down and faces that storm, straight into it, and he goes through it a lot quicker.” In a brilliant artistic stroke, the exchange reminds viewers of the values that bind Native culture.
The original film release in November 2013 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, received a standing ovation. In April 2014, the film won the Western Heritage Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. But all acclaim aside, can The Cherokee Word for Water further the magic of the Bell Project? It already has. According to reviews and audience response from South America to New Zealand, Mankiller’s legacy has grown. Today, elementary and junior and senior high schools throughout America are viewing it, as well as colleges, universities, and indigenous communities. Dr. Larry Browning of the University of Texas at Austin has written a film-related leadership seminar, which he presented at the Royal Norwegian Air Force Academy in 2014.
The film doesn’t just bring back the heady atmosphere of the era’s social activism. It also takes Soap back to the romance that grew out of a like-minded dedication. Early in Soap and Mankiller’s relationship, she was severely injured in a car accident. The film reveals how, over time, she confided in him, sharing her pain and difficulties. From a professional collaboration to a friendship, the ensuing romance turned into a lifelong bond. “I really loved the way she worked with people,” Soap says. “In the beginning, though, I barely said a word. It took me months to get the courage to ask her for a date.”
Their life together would see Mankiller first elected deputy chief under Chief Ross Swimmer in 1983. When Swimmer was appointed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., Mankiller assumed the position of chief. When she faced some opposition because she was a woman, Iroquois leader Oren Lyons told her about an Iroquois prophecy called “the time of the butterfly,” when women will take the lead. “After all, women nurture boys to become leaders,” Lyons said. “So why not?” As Mankiller accepted her duties, Soap assured her, “You’re just fulfilling the prophecy.”
Mankiller was reelected in 1987, and again, in a landslide vote, in 1991. Over the course of three terms, she reinvigorated the Cherokee Nation through community development projects in which men and women worked collectively for the common good. Through her leadership, published works, and prestigious awards, she earned worldwide recognition for the Cherokee people. In 1998 President Clinton awarded her the coveted Medal of Freedom.
Today, Soap dedicates his time to promoting the film, even during his own campaign for chief of the Cherokee Nation, persevering in his wife’s stead. “We still have needs,” he says. “Funds have to go back to the communities, healthcare has to be improved, and better policies have to be in place. Lots of potential resides in our people, and I want them to know that anything is possible. The Bell Project proved it.”
The Cherokee Word for Water (Kamama Films) is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and streaming on the film’s website. www.cw4w.com
From the October 2015 issue.