If you’re not a follower of Native American history, you’ve probably never heard of the late Wilma Mankiller—even though she’s arguably one of the most influential women of the 20th century.
Thankfully, a new documentary, Mankiller, takes a deep look at the life of Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010), the first woman to be elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. The film, directed by Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, will be screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
During a recent phone interview with Red-Horse Mohl, she said a documentary on Wilma Mankiller seemed like an obvious thing to do.
“Wilma Mankiller passed away in 2010, and I obviously knew who she was because I’m Cherokee, but a lot of people don’t know who she was,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “In 2011, PBS reached out to us and said, ‘Maybe you and (co-producer) Gale (Anne Hurd) should think about doing Wilma’s life story.’ The irony is that it took us six years to make the film when we thought it would take a couple of years. It turned into way more than a biography. Her message is still really relevant and really important.”
Mankiller, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was a prominent member of the Democratic Party, a liberal activist and a self-described feminist.
“I knew she was a great leader, but never really knew why she was a great leader or what her leadership style was,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “After doing the film, I was really impressed by how she was never angry, never divisive and never looked at her opponents as if they were enemies, and instead looked at them as someone to embrace and to learn from. … For me, especially in this climate that we’re in right now, I think she really role-modeled being a servant leader and thinking about solutions … and work she did as opposed to her own self and her ego.”
During Mankiller’s leadership from 1985 to 1995, the Cherokee Nation became one of the most prosperous Native American tribes in America, with strides in education, employment opportunities and health care.
“I have not met anyone who is Cherokee who feels she is not an icon,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “During her life, she had political opponents, which is bound to happen when you’re in a political situation, but at this point, everyone agrees she did so much for the nation. You can’t argue with the facts—where the Cherokee Nation is at now financially, and most of it is based on groundwork that she laid. … I would say every Cherokee reveres her, regardless of whether they voted for her or were on her side politically, because it doesn’t matter anymore. I think everyone can recognize the greatest Cherokee leader we’ve ever had.”
Joe Byrd, who followed as chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1995 through 1999, was embroiled in scandal. Red-Horse Mohl explained why his tenure was briefly mentioned in the documentary.
“We wanted to include (a mention of Byrd’s tenure), because we felt it spoke to (Mankiller’s) character about after she left office—being so sick yet still caring about the Cherokee Nation—but we didn’t want to take a left turn into the political part of what happened after she left office. … In short, Joe Byrd and his administration were accused of … mishandling government funds and fraud. In order to find out if that were true, the judicial side, which is separate from the executive branch, ordered an audit of all their books. They refused to give them up, and in order to avoid the audit, fired all the existing tribal police and tribal judges. It was pretty bad in terms of what they were doing, and no one knows what really happened, and no one ever went to jail. Wilma felt that some third party needed to intervene, and she wasn’t just going to sit in her sickbed and let this happen, and she really could have. She used her relationship with President Bill Clinton, with the federal government, and she wrote letters and made phone calls, and they got some intervention and people came in to help.”
As a Native American filmmaker, Red-Horse Mohl said it’s hard to break through stereotypes and misconceptions that all Native American tribes and nations went through the same things.
“That’s why Gale and I really want to make more of these films, because we see the ignorance,” she said. “I meet so many people who are friendly people say, ‘We just had no idea.’ … We typically don’t appear in history books; we don’t appear in film or television, and we’re not in the media. There’s no context for the average person to understand any of that. We do feel a sense of obligation with our documentaries to shed light on things that need to be told, because nobody else is really telling them.”
Mankiller lived with several health conditions throughout her life, and survived a horrible car accident. Red-Horse Mohl said dealing with all of these complications helped make Mankiller a remarkable person.
“One of the things I learned about her was not just strength of character, but physical strength,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “We all live with, ‘I’m tired today,’ and ‘I have too much work.’ I don’t know anyone who had as much going on physically as she did her entire life. She had kidney disease in her 20s. She had a bad car accident, and toward the end, she had multiple things going wrong. Everyone who knew her and was by her side said it was hard for her … but she never complained and was still really good at getting things done.”
Mankiller also covers Wilma Mankiller’s husband, Charlie Soap, who was just as active as she was.
“He is so committed to the Cherokee Nation just as she was, and it’s part of why they were probably so good together,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “He’s still very active and lives in the same house. He’s very active in community organizing and helps to raise money through grants and other projects. He’s still very busy with the Cherokee Nation and projects she would want to be a part of, and he does that in part for her memory.”
Mankiller will be screened as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival at 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 5; and 5:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 6, at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9, 789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Road, Palm Springs; and 11 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 13, at Mary Pickford Is D’Place, 36850 Pickfair St., in Cathedral City. General admission tickets are $13. For tickets or more information, visit www.psfilmfest.org.