The water’s fine

The film’s director and producer, Charlie Soap; actress Kimberly Guerrero, who plays Wilma Mankiller; and actor Mo J, who portrays Soap

Gadugi is a Cherokee word that refers to people and communities coming together to help finish a project or task.

This concept of gadugi is what motivated Wilma Mankiller, who became the first modern female chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Mankiller, born in Tahlequah in 1945, was elected deputy chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1983 and became the first female principal chief in 1985.

During her three terms — two years as deputy chief and 10 years as principal chief — Mankiller reinvigorated the nation through her leadership of community projects in which men and women worked together for a positive cause. One of her most well-known projects was bringing water to the town of Bell, Okla.

Now a group of filmmakers is offering a movie that showcases the chief’s life and accomplishments. "The Cherokee Word for Water" is set in early 1980s Oklahoma, where homes in a small town are rarely more than shacks and nearly all lack running ama, or water.

Told from the viewpoints of Mankiller and full-blood Cherokee Charlie Soap, whom Mankiller married in 1986, the film chronicles the collaboration of the Cherokee

community to build a 16-mile water system, as well as the project’s opposition within a male-dominated tribe.

In his directorial debut, Soap was also a producer for the film, which premiered in Tulsa in November.

Mankiller herself worked on the script, which took more than 20 years to complete. The film also is co-written by Tim Kelly and Louise Rubacky, who edited the film and produced it with Kristina Kiehl, Perry Pickert and Paul Heller, executive producer.

"What I found most rewarding was having the opportunity to make a great film that (incorporated local people) on the big screen," Soap says. "I’m grateful for the professional filmmakers who came to help make this film possible."

Shot exclusively in and around Tahlequah, "The Cherokee Word For Water" was a community effort. Most of the music in the film was produced locally, and the cast and crew were hired from Oklahoma when possible. Soap says the American Indian community was extremely helpful in the making of the film — another testament to the power of gadugi.

The actors represent a wide range of tribes. In addition to Cherokees, the company cast actors from nations including Seminole, Kiowa, Comanche, Choctaw and Chickasaw. The team also benefited from generous financial contributions from the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole and Coquille nations, Soap says.

Actress Kimberly Guerrero plays Mankiller in the film. A native Oklahoman, Guerrero has numerous film and TV credits, including that of "Winona," Jerry’s American Indian girlfriend on the TV comedy "Seinfeld." 

Soap is portrayed by actor Mo J of the Lakota Nation. When not acting, Mo works to develop the rights of American Indian communities and advocates for the safety of their elders.

"The Cherokee Word for Water" will show in March, Women’s History Month. Soap explains that the film is a perfect testament to women’s leadership.

"As a leader (Wilma) was tenacious, very good at bringing out the best in people," Soap says. "Her philosophy was that people have a right to support and to vote for who they want to. She was respectful of others, and in Indian policy-making nationally she always managed to include other Indian leaders when she could.

"What could be better for Women’s History Month than a movie about the project that led to Wilma Mankiller becoming chief?" he asks.

The film is beautifully shot, remarkably told and serves as a powerful testament to not only the people who built Oklahoma’s history, but also to the artists who continue shaping it today.

Oklahoma’s culture is strongly influenced by the actions and leadership of American Indian communities, and Soap says the film is a reminder of this heritage.

"It is my hope that this film will empower the Cherokee people to decide their own destinies in their communities," Soap says. "This film should give Indians and non-Indians a view of the hope and resilience of Indian country."

Soap says the film also speaks to the necessary balance in leadership between men and women. He says he hopes "to inspire Indians to help themselves solve their own problems and not be so dependent on governments."

Though Mankiller played a large role in the story behind this film, she will be unable to watch its blossoming success. Mankiller died of pancreatic cancer in April 2010. Approximately 1,200-1,500 people attended her memorial service.

However, Soap says he plans to keep her spirit alive through this film.

"(Mankiller) inspired girls, women, Democrats, Republicans," he says. "This film is her chosen legacy."

See Contributing Columnist Connie Cronley’s take on the film.

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