FEATURE | WINTER/SPRING 2014
The Cherokee Word for Water
A new film reminds us of Wilma Mankiller’s leadership and commitment to community
WILMA MANKILLER, THE
first woman chief of the
modern Cherokee Nation,
died four years ago, but thanks to a
determined effort by her family and
friends, her legacy lives on in film. The
Cherokee Word for Water is a featurelength
narrative based on a major
project Mankiller took on for the
The film, directed by Mankiller’s
husband and longtime communitydevelopment
partner, Charlie Soap,
follows a young Mankiller as she
works to bring water to the rural
Cherokee town of Bell, Okla.
Mankiller and Soap had to convince
the small community, which had limited
public funds, to lay 18 miles of
waterline by themselves in order to
bring running water to their homes.
Thanks in large part to Mankiller’s
fierce determination, the community
was able to complete the project and
improve their quality of life.
“The Bell project created a movement
within the Cherokee nation for
self help,” Soap told Ms. The success
of the Bell Waterline Project also
vaulted a young Wilma Mankiller into
tribal politics, and she ended up serving
the tribe as principal chief for 10
years. During that time she made great
strides to improve health, education,
housing, utilities management and
tribal government. She also devoted
much of her time to civil rights work,
focusing largely on women’s rights.
Soap and the film’s coproducer,
Kristina Kiehl, have chosen to forgo
the traditional film distribution route
and instead opted for a communitydriven
model in which people organize
their own screenings of the film.
Screenings on reservations have
evolved into forums for discussion
about issues in Indian country, boosting
community organizing and activism.
In that way, Mankiller’s work
continues on through the film.
“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 board of
directors with mutual friend, and Ms.
cofounder, Gloria Steinem.
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. One
in three Native women will experience
sexual assault in her lifetime,
and at least 90,000 Indian families are
homeless or under-housed. Despite
such obvious needs, the recent federal
sequester cut $500 million in federal
funding for tribes. As Kim Teehee,
a long-standing advocate for Native
American issues, told Ms., these cuts
have devastated areas of Indian country
already suffering from high unemployment.
Much like the Waterline Project,
the film was a community effort;
shooting was done on tribal lands
using Native actors primarily. The
Cherokee Word for Water will hopefully
inspire similar collective efforts in
other communities, and 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
For more information about the film
or to host a screening, please visit
Reprinted from the Winter/Spring issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, Apple, or Android device, join the Ms. Community.
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