Wilma Mankiller, the first modern woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, died four years ago this spring, but thanks to a determined effort by her family, friends and the communities she spent her life advocating for, her legacy lives on in film.
The Cherokee Word For Water, a docudrama directed by Wilma’s husband and longtime community development partner, Charlie Soap, follows a young Mankiller as she works to bring water to the rural, primarily Cherokee community of Bell, Ok. Due to tribal financial limitations, Mankiller and Soap had to convince community residents to lay 18 miles of water line by themselves in order to bring running water to their homes. Thanks in large part to Mankiller’s fierce determination, the community completed the project, improving their quality of life and strengthening their communal bonds.
“The Bell project created a movement in the Cherokee nation for self help. Together we were able to instill pride and self confidence and actually make people believe they could do anything they wanted to do if they set their mind to it,” Charlie Soap told the Ms. Blog.
The success of the Bell Waterline Project vaulted Mankiller into tribal politics. She was elected deputy chief in 1983 and then principal chief in 1985, a position she held for 10 years. During that time she made great strides toward improved health, education, housing, utilities management and tribal government, as well as devoting time to civil rights work focused largely on women’s rights.
Soap and the film’s co-producer, Kristina Kiehl, have chosen to forgo the traditional film distribution route and instead opted for a model in which people organize their own screenings. On reservations, screenings have evolved into forums for discussion about issues in Indian Country, boosting community organizing and activism. In that way, Wilma’s work continues through the film.
“We are able to control the message while creating community in the process, and local groups can use a screening as a fundraiser and double the impact.” says Kiehl, a feminist activist and longtime friend of Mankiller’s. The two became close while on the Ms. Foundation For Women with mutual friend, and Ms. co-founder, Gloria Steinem. When Kiehl first approached Mankiller about making a film, Mankiller was apprehensive. Said Kiehl,
Wilma did not want a story about her. She was very clear that she wanted it to be about community. The reason she agreed to do a film was her firm belief that public perception drives public policy, and that policy-makers in general have no experience with Indian people … She also felt, and we all agreed, that it was important to see a strong positive woman leader working in partnership with a strong male partner and both of them working in partnership with the community.
More than three decades after work began on the Bell Waterline Project, native communities across the U.S. are still in need. A disproportionately large percentage of American Indians live below the federal poverty line, and issues such as sexual assault on reservations and inadequate housing still abound: More than one in three native women will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes and at least 90,000 Indian families are homeless or under-housed. Despite the obvious need, the recent federal sequester cut $500 million [PDF] in federal funding for tribes. These cuts have devastated areas of Indian country that are already suffering from unemployment rates much higher than the general population.
The Ms. Blog also spoke with Kim Teehee, a longstanding advocate for Native American issues as well as a close friend and former intern to Mankiller. As Teehee, whose relatives worked alongside Mankiller to build the Bell Waterline, put it,
Wilma tapped into who Cherokees are fundamentally in order to get them to participate in that project, and when the budget cuts occur and tribes are without the ability to adequately provide for their communities, that impacts them because its so embedded in our culture to care for our people, our community … it’s impacting something greater, it’s impacting our traditional ways of life.
With Women’s History Month coming in March, the filmmakers are encouraging schools across the U.S. to host screenings. They’re also going to ask followers on Facebook and Twitter to share stories about how Wilma, or another women leader, inspired them. The Cherokee Word For Water will hopefully encourage collective efforts in other communities, as well as demonstrate the necessity of strong women in positions of power in our society.
“I think that the biggest legacy that Wilma has left us with is leadership,” said Charlie Soap. “She inspired people.”
Photos courtesy of Mike Heller, Shane Brown, and The Cherokee Word For Water.
A shorter version of this story will appear in the Winter 2014 issue of Ms. magazine.
Melissa McGlensey recently graduated from the University of Oregon with a B.A. in English and Spanish with a minor in creative writing; she is currently interning at Ms. Read more from her at OhHeyMeliss.com.