Coming Sunday: Wilma Mankiller subject of new movie
BY MICHAEL SMITH World Movie Critic
Saturday, November 24, 2012
The Cherokee concept of “gadugi” means working together to solve a problem. That’s what happened in the tiny community of Bell about 30 years ago in building a waterline and bringing fresh drinking water to the people of the town, located southeast of Tahlequah.
The volunteer effort, and the efforts of Wilma Mankiller and her husband to facilitate the project, played a role in Mankiller later becoming the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation.
These are among the events depicted in “The Cherokee Word for Water,” a feature film celebrating the courage and determination of both a resilient people and a pioneering woman in Mankiller.
The picture opens with a private premiere Thursday followed by a week of screenings at Circle Cinema in Tulsa beginning Friday.
Working by her side for the Cherokee Nation was Charlie Soap, her husband from 1986 until her death from cancer in 2010. While the idea of a movie came from one of their friends, Kristina Kiehl (one of the film’s producers), the film was on Mankiller’s mind in her final days.
Kiehl saw greatness in Mankiller’s leadership style not only on behalf of the Cherokees but also her boldness on behalf of the Black Panther movement in the 1960s and in supporting the Occupation of Alcatraz from 1969-1971 by the group Indians of All Tribes as just some of the reasons for making the movie.
Mankiller, meanwhile, saw the fortitude of the people of Bell as a watershed moment in Cherokee history.
“It was a week before she died that Wilma said to me, ‘Charlie, this story has to be told about our people. Indian people make such contributions that they don’t get credit for, and this needs to be told. We have a story to be told. You have a story to be told, so you promise me that you’ll work with (Kiehl) like you and me worked together,’” Soap recalled.
What happened in Bell 30 years ago was such a shift in tribal thinking that the waterline project gained national attention. This was a time when some of the tribe’s people didn’t trust the tribal leaders — or the Bureau of Indian Affairs — for a decision that mandated that American Indians like those in Bell — about 95 percent Cherokee at the time among the few hundred residents — register with the tribe to prove their Indian heritage.
“Having to register offended a lot of Bell people,” Soap recalled. “They needed services but couldn’t get them, saying, ‘Can’t you tell I’m a full-blood? What do I need a White Card for?’ Then it became a matter of getting people to trust us and the government again.”
That’s where Mankiller came in. Residents who had previously seen promises made and broken saw Mankiller keep her word, working in the early 1980s as the tribe’s community development director.
She regained the people’s trust, she remained visible in the community, and then she pushed through the idea of bringing fresh water to the residents of Bell, some of whom had never had indoor plumbing.
It was that idea of self-help — Bell residents supply the volunteer labor to build an 18-mile waterline, the tribe will supply the heavy equipment and the pump — that Mankiller and Soap, who was working with the tribe’s housing authority, became known for.
It was “gadugi,” Soap said.
Find more of this story in Sunday's Scene section or online at tulsaworld.com/scene.
‘THE CHEROKEE WORD FOR WATER’
What: Film drama based on the story of the Cherokee Nation’s Wilma Mankiller and Charlie Soap and the early 1980s development of a waterline in Bell, where residents worked together with the tribe’s help to bring water to the Adair County community.
When: Opens Friday at Circle Cinema; invitation-only premiere Thursday at Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.
Where: Circle Cinema, 10 S. Lewis Ave. and at Dream Theater in downtown Tahlequah.
Note: Charlie Soap and cast introduce film 8 p.m. Friday at Circle Cinema before 8:30 p.m. screening.