‘Mankiller’ documentary covers former principal chief’s life
Valerie Red-Horse interviews former Principal Chief Chad Smith in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, for the PBS documentary “Mankiller.” The documentary will cover former Principal Chief Mankiller’s life from her early years until her death on April 6, 2010. EVAN TAYLOR PHOTOGRAPHY
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Stories and memories are ways to remember people who have died, whether their smile is remembered or their views, there is a way to catch a glimpse of the past. With the hopes of a 2016 release, people will get a look into former Principal Chief Wilma P. Mankiller’s life as told by her loved ones and colleagues in the PBS documentary “Mankiller.”
Documentary producer and director Valerie Red-Horse, who is of Cherokee descent, said she is honored to share Mankiller’s legacy, the Cherokee Nation’s first and only female principal chief who served 1985-95.
“As someone who is of Cherokee ancestry, there are so many similarities in my life that I often find myself in tears as we’re filming this project. It’s just really hard for me because my father was born and raised in Tahlequah and then brought out to San Francisco on the (Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian) relocation program, just like Wilma’s family,” Red-Horse said. “When I hear some of the things she went through, it was like part of my life story is reflected in that.”
Red-Horse said she is working with fellow producer Gale Anne Hurd, of Valhalla Entertainment, who is known as the “First Lady of Sci-Fi” and has produced films such as “The Terminator,” “Aliens” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Hurd is also an executive producer on “The Walking Dead” and the upcoming companion series “Fear the Walking Dead.”
Red-Horse said this isn’t the first project they have worked on together. They also created “True Whispers: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers” and “Choctaw Code Talkers.”
She said Hurd is a great person to work with when it comes to honoring Native traditions and stories.
“She has a total heart for philanthropy and for the Native community. She’s always very supportive. She always refers to traditions and cultures and never wants to come in as the Hollywood entity,” she said.
Red-Horse said she is glad to be producing the documentary because she and others on staff believe “Wilma Mankiller is a woman that deserves to have a documentary.”
“What happened was when her widower, Charlie Soap, and his team of producers were doing the ‘The Cherokee Word for Water,’ that film came to our attention and it came to the attention of PBS,” she said. “PBS does not get involved with narrative feature films, the Native (Vision Maker Media) arm doesn’t, so they had reached out to me and started a dialog with me saying, ‘look, you’re one of our veteran film makers is this something that you might consider doing the real life story of Wilma.’ I said, ‘we would be very interested in that.’ We started talking to the family and they liked the idea.”
She said the difference between the “The Cherokee Word for Water” and the “Mankiller” documentary is that the documentary will be a work of non-fiction that tells Mankiller’s life story and not just focus on the Bell Waterline project.
She said the documentary covers Mankiller’s life from before her family’s relocation to San Francisco to when she died on April 6, 2010.
“We’ve covered the early years. We went back to (Mankiller) Flats and we interviewed her family where she was raised and talked about the early years before the relocation,” she said. “We’re going to cover San Francisco, she was there for about 20 years and then she came back (to Oklahoma) in 1977.”
Red-Horse said they interviewed influential people in Mankiller’s life, ranging from former Principal Chiefs Ross Swimmer and Chad Smith to current Principal Chief Bill John Baker and everyone in between.
“We’ve interviewed people in Oklahoma who worked with her, who were apart of her administration, her family, her friends, political allies. We’re interviewing everyone,” she said. “We’re trying to get a good cross section of anyone who knew her or worked with her. We have interviews from Gloria Steinem (and) I think we’re going to be able to get one from (former President) Bill Clinton.”
Red-Horse said she is amazed by how many people Mankiller’s message of “working together” reached.
“…what she called gadugi, which is a good way, the Cherokee way. I just feel it’s a message that everyone needs to hear today. I don’t feel that it stopped when she passed away or was out of office, I think it’s a message that really resonates today,” she said.
Red-Horse said Vision Maker Media, an arm of PBS, funded the documentary, as well as a Kickstarter campaign that Valhalla Entertainment started. She said the delivery date of the documentary to PBS is set for Dec. 31, 2015, but she was unsure of an official broadcast date other than sometime in 2016.