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Gale Anne Hurd On The Legacy of Wilma Mankiller (Exclusive Video)

04/03/2015 05:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2016

I've asked Gale Anne Hurd to share her thoughts on why the story of the first female Principal Chief of The Cherokee Nation is one for the history books.

You might think the first woman to become principal chief of the Cherokee Nation is unrelated to my Sci-fi productions, but the late Wilma Mankiller was a real-life Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor, and like the women of "The Walking Dead" she was a survivor-warrior who stepped up to lead her people.

As I sat down to write about Wilma Mankiller and the importance of her legacy,  I thought: Where do I start?  On the leadership front?  How she brought a nation together when many of the men who preceded her had failed?  Or the equally important aspect of her heritage, and how American history has essentially scrubbed the original "Americans"  from our history books?  "Most people like to deal with us as though we were in a museum or a history book," Chief Wilma Mankiller once said of Native American tribes. For Wilma, there is added insult to injury: despite being a woman head of state of a sovereign nation, elected in 1983 who served three unprecedented and productive terms in office, she is not even mentioned in most history books.  For these reasons and so many more, director/producer Valerie Red-Horse and I feel now is the time to document Wilma's life story in a film.

Native American Roots and Their Impact

Mankiller has taken on a whole life of its own through community outreach and social media.  An aspect of a Kickstarter campaign I was not expecting is the almost familial feeling of a group banding together, most of whom you have never met. One such person is Rustie Ann Miller, a Cherokee woman who has taken to Twitter for hours on end in support of our documentary.  She has tweeted to everyone from Barack Obama to Blake Shelton in hopes of having her Chief and idol's story told.  As she said through her Twitter email to me, "I've been up two days now but can't stop gotta make this happen". Rustie Ann explains the urgency of this documentary in great detail, "My heritage is very important to me.  I believe by Mankiller's story being told, it would open the eyes of many and help others with closure. Our people have been through a lot, and people need to know [about] the true Native American culture. I believe by making the Mankiller documentary, all cultures would benefit from her great wisdom, leadership, and love for the world."

As filmmakers, Valerie and I, like Rustie Ann, understand the power of cinema to document history and preserve it for future generations. A film can generate awareness even more widespread than an article or a museum exhibit.  As Wilma Mankiller's story comes closer to being lost to time, we have decided to act now to ensure that her name is never forgotten.  Wilma's legacy is even more relevant in today's partisan political world and can serve as an inspiration for unity and humility in politics, to care first about people rather than power.
   
For those of you not familiar with Wilma, let's go back in time.  Wilma Mankiller was born at the tail end of World War II in 1945, in a city at the foothills of the Ozark Mountains of Oklahoma. Her father was a full-blooded Cherokee, while her mother was Dutch-Irish who embraced Cherokee life. Growing up, Wilma experienced many of the hardships suffered by the Cherokee Tribe, including forced relocation to San Francisco by the U.S. government when she was 10 years old. She referred to the event as her own "Trail of Tears," 100 years after the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that forced several tribes to abandon their ancestral lands in the southeast and force-marched them 2,200 miles to Oklahoma in the dead of winter.  Over 4,000 Cherokee died along the way.
 
In the Bay Area, Wilma witnessed activism that shaped her worldview and set her on the path to leadership. In 1969, she was involved in the occupation of Alcatraz Island with other Native American activists looking to reclaim the land that rightfully belonged to them. It is fitting that her surname, "Mankiller," refers to a traditional Cherokee warrior rank. Indeed, Wilma found her calling as a soldier for human rights.  She was a role model to all Native women, as highlighted by director/producer Valerie Red-Horse: "Being a Cherokee woman, the opportunity to tell the inspiring story of Wilma Mankiller's life and legacy is extraordinary. Wilma's journey is empowering and fascinating, and her influence and reach were clearly widespread. I believe we as a society have much to learn from her ability to unite and grow communities and governments, setting differences aside. This is a big task for us as filmmakers as this is so much more than mere entertainment - the program will be utilized for education and empowerment as well."

An excluisve clip from Mankiller

Before and during her tenure, Wilma Mankiller took on some of the most urgent challenges of our time: education, alternative energy and small business development. She revived the Sequoyah High School, created a hydro-electric dam and established federal small business development grants which engendered self-empowerment. She also brought running water to the communities of Bell, Okalhoma and she tripled tribal membership from 55,000 to 165,000. Like any leader, her administration was not without detractors nor  controversy, but even her political foes will agree that Mankiller led an exemplarily courageous and accomplished life. As Gloria Steinem said in her review of Mankiller's book, A Chief and Her People: "As one woman's journey, Mankiller opens the heart. As the history of a people, it informs the mind. Together, it teaches us that, as long as people like Wilma Mankiller carry the flame within them, centuries of ignorance and genocide can't extinguish the human spirit."

Upon Wilma's passing in April 2010, President Obama declared: "I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Wilma Mankiller today. As the Cherokee Nation's first female chief, she transformed the Nation-to-Nation relationship between the Cherokee Nation and the Federal Government, and served as an inspiration to women in Indian Country and across America. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she was recognized for her vision and commitment to a brighter future for all Americans. Her legacy will continue to encourage and motivate all who carry on her work. Michelle and I offer our condolences to Wilma's family, especially her husband Charlie and two daughters, Gina and Felicia, as well as the Cherokee Nation and all those who knew her and were touched by her good works."

Show me the money: a video primer on another kind of equality.

A number of people, including President Obama, have recognized the need to raise the profile of female leaders in this country. Women on 20s is a grassroots movement that seeks to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with a prominent woman from American history. The list of potential replacements is filled with worthy candidates - Sojourner Truth, Rachel Carson, Harriet Tubman - and Wilma Mankiller. The faces on U.S. bills haven't changed since 1929, and honoring Wilma on the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in 2020, could not be more perfect. With President Jackson having forced the removal of the Cherokee from their ancestral lands despite a Supreme Court mandate ruling in the Tribe's favor - putting Wilma on the $20 bill would be poetic justice at its finest.  As author Louise Erdrich stated in her New York Times opinion piece, "It would be poetically just for her to replace Jackson and I love the thought of her soft and majestic face on money. Not to mention the satisfying contrast of her ferocious name."
 
Family & the Art of Filmmaking

We have brought together a filmmaking team that includes Wilma's widower, Charlie Soap, her daughter, Gina Olaya, and producers Kristina Kiehl and Dawn Jackson. But we have been joined by hundreds who have pledged their support to our project on Kickstarter, where we are crowd-funding part of the film's budget. We believe that crowdfunding is the ultimate way to honor a leader like Wilma, by bringing people together in a campaign, much like she did.  Gina Olaya, Wilma's daughter, put it best: "Mom was one of a few Native leaders in the 80s and 90s who sacrificed everything to lead her people. She worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week, to fulfill their needs. Mom's service to our tribe wasn't to gain fame, or fortune, or even social status. She genuinely cared for the health and welfare of each and every citizen of the Cherokee Nation, regardless of political affiliation or socioeconomic status. She would meet with U.S. presidents, then come home to Oklahoma to prepare food and dance the night away at our ceremonial ground; a rare breed, in my opinion."

This extended trailer will introduce you to the story of Wilma Mankiller - and you might also recognize a few familiar faces from a certain series on AMC...