Wilma Pearl Mankiller, the first woman elected to the position of Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation is the focus of the documentary film "Mankiller" airing on public television this month and supplemented by an upcoming live Q&A session.
"I had to go back to the land of my people...The circle had to be completed." – Wilma Pearl Mankiller (November 18, 1945 – April 6, 2010)
MIAMI - The remarkable life of the first woman to become the Cherokee Nation's Principal Chief, Wilma Pearl Mankiller, is the focus of a stirring new documentary, "Mankiller," airing on PBS through March.
The nearly one-hour documentary is comprised of archival footage and interviews featuring Mankiller and recent interviews with family, friends, and colleagues discussing her incredible legacy.
While having been recognized several times in her life for her work with honors such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, and Ms. Magazine’s Woman of the Year, Mankiller's extensive body of accomplishments has remained mostly unknown beyond specific circles outside of Oklahoma's borders, until now.
The film is directed by Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, a woman of Cherokee ancestry and the owner/founder of Red-Horse Native Productions, Inc., who has distinguished herself as an artist in amplifying Native voices and issues through film in an accurate and respectful way.
"Mankiller" is Red-Horse Mohl's third project with famed Executive Producer Gale Anne Hurd and carries viewers from Mankiller's relocation as a child from rural Oklahoma to San Francisco, California, with her family in 1956 under the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Indian Relocation Program, to her return and rise to Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995, and her subsequent death in 2010 from pancreatic cancer.
A self-professed and demonstrated liberal, feminist, and activist, Mankiller's path was one filled with both personal and political trials that have served to further set her apart as a distinguished and determined leader among her critics and supporters.
Mankiller became chief at a time when leadership within the tribe was male-dominated, political leanings were primarily conservative, and her seeming focus on community-development projects over business pursuits was viewed as problematic.
Later, her push for the development of gaming as a revenue building means for the tribe was also met with resistance but has since proved to be a venture that has allowed Cherokee Nation to establish significant resources and influence.
Mankiller also faced serious health obstacles in her lifetime, the first a near-fatal car accident in 1979 that left her severely injured and required some 17 operations in her recovery, the neuromuscular disease Myasthenia gravis, a kidney transplant, and surviving breast cancer and lymphoma.
Her health problems are cited in the film as the reason she did not seek further terms as chief, although she remained an active participant in continued Cherokee interests and developments.
She died April 6, 2010, in her home in Adair County of complications related to terminal pancreatic cancer.
Among her sustaining contributions are infrastructure improvements, the broadening of tribal health services and facilities, her administration's founding of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department, the revived tribal Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah, and significantly improved government-to-government relations between the Cherokee and the U.S. federal government.
"Mankiller is the powerful story of Wilma Mankiller, who found her voice in San Francisco's civil rights movement and returned to lead the Cherokee Nation as the first woman to be elected Principal Chief," reads a statement by Red-Horse Mohl on the film's website. "I am honored and humbled to be directing and producing this documentary in collaboration with my tremendous production team, especially Executive Producer Gale Anne Hurd."
Supplementing the film's public television airings this month, OETA is hosting an online Q&A session Wednesday, March 21 with Red-Horse Mohl and Gina Olaya, one of Mankiller’s daughters, who will speak on the making of the documentary and answer questions live.
The conversation will be available to live stream at OETA.tv/live Wednesday from 12 to 1 p.m. Viewers can ask questions in the comments section of the YouTube live stream.
The live stream can also be accessed on Facebook through the Mankiller: Panel Discussion event page.
The "Mankiller" documentary can be viewed online at PBS and airs on PBS stations at various times this month. Check with your local cable provider to find program schedules and available PBS channels.
For more information about the documentary, visit the "Mankiller" website.
Dorothy Ballard is the managing news editor of the Miami News-Record. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @dm_ballard.