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New Documentary Sheds Light on the Life of Wilma Mankiller

Veteran producer Gale Anne Hurd, Aliens and The Walking Dead, talks about her new documentary Mankiller, airing March 23, 2018.

March 9, 2018

“My own personal perspective is that I am a pretty ordinary person that just happened to be given an opportunity to do extraordinary things in my life.”

— Wilma Mankiller

Although Wilma Mankiller humbly described herself as an ordinary person, a new documentary shows otherwise. In just a handful of years, Mankiller went from living in a car with her children to being elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. She was anything but ordinary — and nothing short of inspiring.

Mankiller, part of the Women’s History Month programming on KCTS 9, will air on Friday, March 23, at 10:00 p.m. This documentary tells the story of an unassuming American hero who overcame enormous obstacles to fight injustice and give a voice to the voiceless.

Produced by veteran filmmaker Gale Anne Hurd, the documentary puts Wilma Mankiller’s work and legacy into the spotlight. And, according to Hurd, Mankiller’s story is particularly relevant given our current political climate. Here is what Hurd had to say about Wilma Mankiller and how her message is an inspiration in 2018.

Q. What inspired you to produce a film about Wilma Mankiller?

A. When Valerie [Red-Horse], with whom I’d produced two other Native American documentaries (one about Navajo Code Talkers in World War II and the other about the Choctaw who created a code during World War I), approached me about doing a film about Wilma Mankiller, I had to admit I had no idea who she was. When I researched her life and achievements, I realized that it was a travesty that I hadn’t heard about her, and that most Americans hadn’t either. I wanted to celebrate and preserve the legacy of a great indigenous woman leader whose story is so inspiring.

Q.You are perhaps best known for projects like The Terminator, Aliens and The Walking Dead. What was it like to change gears with Mankiller?

A. This is my third documentary about Native Americans, so it was not a brand new direction for me. I find that the stories I tell, regardless of the medium, tend to highlight ordinary people who find the strength to become leaders during extraordinary times. That’s true of Sarah Connor in The Terminator, Ellen Ripley in Aliens and all of our cast in The Walking Dead.

Q. Considering the activism and feminist movements we have seen take hold following the 2016 election, how do you think Wilma Mankiller’s story will resonate with audiences in 2018?

A. Wilma’s story is so inspiring given all of the obstacles and difficulties she had to overcome. At one point, she was living in her car on her family land in the Cherokee Nation, and seven years later she was elected Principal Chief to lead her nation. She faced rampant sexism and yet never backed away from being a feminist and an advocate for the rights of her people. After squeaking by to win her first election when she ran for deputy chief, in her final election, she won with 82 percent of the vote.

Q. What lessons can we learn from Wilma Mankiller?

A. Wilma was an inspiring leader who reminds us how much we can achieve, regardless of our socio-economic background, gender or political affiliation. She believed in servant leadership, always putting her people first, and empowering them, rather than using her power to advance herself.

Q. Is there a moment from the documentary or something else about Wilma Mankiller that resonated most strongly with you or inspired you?

A. In these times of political divisiveness, I think that Wilma’s willingness to work in a bipartisan fashion and reach across the aisle is incredibly inspiring. She reminds us all what great leadership looks like and how much one leader can help her Nation achieve, socio-economically and culturally.


Caroline Gerdes

Caroline Gerdes is the social media specialist at Cascade Public Media and a New Orleanian living in Seattle. She was also a National Geographic Young Explorer — which is totally a real job title. She recently published her first book, An Oral History of the New Orleans Ninth Ward

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