A documentary will profile Wilma Mankiller's contributions to the Cherokee Nation and the state of Oklahoma.
Wilma Mankiller was the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. She died in 2010. Cherokee director Valerie Red-Horse and producer Gale Anne Hurd are filming a documentary about Mankiller’s life and legacy.
Courtesy Wilma Mankiller Foundation
The late Wilma Mankiller remains one of Oklahoma’s most beloved women.
A documentary currently in production from two southern California-based filmmakers hopes to profile her contributions to the Cherokee Nation and the state of Oklahoma. Produced by Red-Horse Native Productions Inc. and Valhalla Entertainment, “Mankiller” filmed in Oklahoma, California and New York.
During her three terms as the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, Mankiller reinvigorated the Nation through her leadership and involvement in community projects. She brought men and women together for positive causes, such as building a waterline for rural Bell, Oklahoma, and establishing federal small business development grants.
Her impact on history is undeniable, and she is even being considered as a face on redesigned currency in 2020.
“The film is the life story of Wilma Mankiller from start to finish,” says Valerie Red-Horse, owner and founder of Red-Horse Native Productions. “We aimed to honor her memory, legacy and relevancy and shed light on the Cherokee Nation.”
Red-Horse is a director of Cherokee ancestry and says her culture drew her to this project.
“My father was born in Tahlequah, so I wanted to feel a connection with my ancestry and see the places where my father was raised,” she says.
After studying film at UCLA, Red-Horse started her career with projects that earned awards and placements at the Sundance Film Festival. Her company has become a driving force in working with tribal nations and bringing their stories to the big screen.
Red-Horse’s achievements in a career that spans three decades eventually led to a partnership with Gale Anne Hurd, a well-respected Hollywood producer. Known as the “First Lady of Sci-Fi,” Hurd produced “The Terminator” trilogy, “Aliens” and “The Walking Dead.”
Together, the pair began creating documentaries for PBS about Native Americans, including “True Whispers: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers” and “Choctaw Code Talkers,” which also was filmed in Oklahoma.
When a recent narrative feature about Mankiller titled “The Cherokee Word for Water” began production, it brought to light the life and work of Mankiller. It wasn’t long before PBS looked to Red-Horse and Hurd to create a project with a similar topic.
Funded in part by Vision Maker Media for PBS, the project raised the rest of its funding from a successful Kickstarter campaign begun by Hurd’s production company. According to Red-Horse, Hurd’s involvement with “The Walking Dead” resulted in the TV show’s fans playing a huge role in earning the $150,000 the group needed.
Once the funds were raised, the choice to film in Oklahoma was a logical one.
“We’ve always filmed where the story takes place,” Red-Horse says, “which is why we chose Oklahoma. We’ll also film in Los Angeles and recently filmed in San Francisco, where Wilma was forcefully relocated as a child.”
Mankiller’s widower, Charlie Soap, and her daughters serve as co-producers and played a large role in helping bring her story to life. (Mankiller’s friend and former campaign manager, Kristina Kiehl, also is a producer.)
Despite a thunderstorm interrupting a day of shooting, Red-Horse says there is a lot to admire about Oklahoma.
“Everyone from hotel to restaurant staff was so welcoming and helpful,” she says. “The warmth of the people stood out to me.”
Red-Horse says she hopes the documentary will show viewers the strength of Mankiller’s leadership.
“Wilma was an amazing leader, and her life is a testament to hard work and overcoming obstacles,” Red-Horse says. “I’m excited to show how she was a unifier and organizer who was able to accomplish projects for the people. She didn’t think of herself as a political or divisive label.”
“Mankiller” will likely broadcast on PBS in 2016. While Oklahomans can see the film on OETA, Red-Horse says she hopes to distribute the film and maybe even land a theatrical release in the future.
“We want to honor Wilma’s wish to shed light on the Cherokee Nation and her history,” Red-Horse says. “We think this project will be very educational for Oklahoma and the Cherokee people.”