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FEATURE | WINTER/SPRING 2014

The Cherokee Word for Water

A new film reminds us of Wilma Mankiller’s leadership and commitment to community


By MELISSA MCGLENSEY

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 Cherokee Nation.

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 people.”

For more information about the film or to host a screening, please visit www.cw4w.com.

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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