TULSA, Okla. – Hundreds of hands went into making the new feature film The Cherokee Word for Water, but one name was most on the minds and hearts filling the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame for Thursday evening’s special premiere event in Tulsa.
Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, was celebrated by an audience packing the ballroom where the film was screened for the first time. When it was over, everyone understood why Mankiller never wanted the film to be about her.
“Wilma wanted the film to get the message across to America that Native people do contribute to economic development and education. They are sharing the load,” said Charlie Soap in an interview before the screening.
The Cherokee Word for Water is set in the early 1980s when a young Mankiller pulls up to her mother’s home in Adair County with her two teenage daughters. Having grown up in San Francisco, Calif., Mankiller, played by actress Kimberly Guerrero (Cherokee, Colville, Salish-Kootenai), has returned to her birthplace. She has also come back to help her people and says so to Ross Swimmer, the tribe’s principal chief from 1975-85. The film then recounts the efforts she made to gain the trust of residents in the small community of Bell, a rural outpost in the hilly country of Adair County. There, residents are unable to qualify for housing assistance because the area does not have water service. The lack of suitable housing, in turn, prevents them from qualifying for grant money to bring water into the hills.
Tasked by the chief with finding a solution, Mankiller goes to the residents of Bell and anyone within the tribe who will help bring water to even the most isolated pockets of the Cherokee Nation.
That’s where Soap (played by Oglala Lakota actor Moses Brings Plenty) enters the picture and helps a spirited Mankiller speak with families and elders (often translating into Cherokee for them) about building a water line that could save the small community’s school building and bring water to residents. The residents are soon convinced that the project will only be complete if they volunteer their own time to install it.
A little thing called “gadugi” helped, too, said Soap.
“Gadugi” is the Cherokee word for when people come together to take care of one another and see the job through to the end, he said. The Cherokee people of Bell, with help from Mankiller and Soap, brought water to their homes for themselves as well as their non-Native neighbors. The Bell Project, as it was called, was the first of several water projects made possible between the nation and resident volunteers who endeavored to make opportunity happen for their selves. Mankiller soon was elected as the tribe’s deputy chief. When Swimmer was appointed to assistant secretary of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, she became the Cherokee’s first woman Principal Chief, leading the tribe from 1985-1995. Mankiller died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer.
The Cherokee Word for Water shows how Soap and Mankiller became allies, friends and something more. He said it also reveals Mankiller’s tenacity and ability to inspire and empower the people she led.
“To me that was the greatest impact it had on these communities,” Soap said. “Also we worked with them and taught to write grants, taught them to conduct meetings, taught them about writing proposals to be self sufficient so they would not have to depend on Cherokee Nation or the government – not a hand out. It instills pride in Indian communities. The whole idea was to make them independent.”
Soap served as a film producer and shared directing responsibilities with screenwriter Timothy Kelly. He joked that blasting through rock to install the 16-mile water line was a simpler task.
“I think getting water to Bell was a lot easier than making the film,” Soap said.
Mankiller worked on the film for years with long-time friend Kristina Kiehl to tell the story of the Bell people and their feat. A week before her passing, she made Soap promise to raise money to finish the film and help Kiehl.
“I told her, ‘I’m not a fundraiser, Wilma,’” he said. “She said, ‘I don’t want to hear that, Charlie. I just need it done.’”
Kiehl, who met Mankiller during her first election campaign for principal chief, is also a producer on the film. They became close friends.
“This is a story of hope and resilience,” Kiehl said. “She felt it would resonate beyond Indian Country to people everywhere. She said it was her hope that people who were living in depressed communities would see this film and would say, ‘If they can do it, we can do it.’”
Most of the movie was filmed last fall before it went into post-production for editing, sound, captions and many other processes before it could be distributed. The film was cast almost entirely of American Indians, many of whom are Cherokees. Indigenous rights activist Oren Lyons (Onondaga, Seneca) played the role of Soap’s grandfather.
“It was fun having been invited (to participate). I’m not an actor … but knowing Wilma for so long and Charlie, when he asked me if I wanted to play the part of the grandpa, I said, ‘Sure.’ That was fun.”
Kiehl said they had tremendous support in talent, time and funds from local communities, area organizations and film professionals to make The Cherokee Word for Water. And, with the help of the Wilma Mankiller Foundation, created six weeks after her death, the film will be a tool for empowering people everywhere to make the changes they want to see.
Their promise fulfilled, both Kiehl and Soap said they are glad Mankiller’s legacy can be shared further.
The movie will be shown at Circle Cinema (www.circlecinema.org) in Tulsa and the Dream Theatre in Tahlequah through Dec. 6. Go to www.cw4w.com for showing schedule and more about the film.
The Cherokee word for water is Ꭰ Ꮉ (a-ma).
Charlie Soap (left), husband of the late Wilma Mankiller, visits with actors Kimberly Guerrero and Moses Brings Plenty on the set of filming “The Cherokee Word for Water.” The film is now playing at select theaters in Tulsa and Tahlequah.