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Austin Film Festival 2017: “Mankiller” Review

“Mankiller” is a 2017 documentary about Wilma Mankiller, who became the first woman elected to serve as the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1987. The film details her childhood, how she grew into her community and political roles, and the changes she made along the way.

Wilma Mankiller | Photo courtesy of the Wilma Mankiller Foundation

Though her family was from Oklahoma, they moved to San Francisco when Wilma was a preteen as part of a relocation program by the federal government. The United States has many of these ‘relocation’ stories, especially for American Indians, and the documentary gives a brief history of them, including the Trail of Tears.

San Francisco was where Wilma Mankiller spent her formative years and she grew up in a time of revolution, said in the documentary to be a time of political, personal and social change. She knew and worked with the Black Panthers, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and indigenous people to make positive changes within their communities. This led to her involvement in the Occupation of Alcatraz Island, a movement in which American Indian activists reclaimed the land from the federal government under the Treaty of Fort Laramie.

Wilma eventually returned to Oklahoma but had to fight to be welcomed into the community since she was essentially an outsider to them. This was the beginning of her story as a community leader and, eventually, a politician. She faced sexism and racism throughout her life and career, but she did not back down from what she believed was right. “In a just country, she would’ve been elected president,” says Gloria Steinem in “Mankiller.”

Wilma Mankiller (center) and colleagues hold ceremonial shovels at the goundbreaking of the Wilma P. Mankiller Health Center
Photo courtesy of Wilma Mankiller Foundation

The documentary features members of Wilma’s family, members of the Cherokee Nation, historians, and activists. It also features plenty of footage of Wilma herself, so there’s no chance of missing out on her side of any of the stories. Wilma Mankiller died in April 2010 due to pancreatic cancer, after having successfully fought injuries from a terrible car wreck in 1979, surviving a kidney transplant, and enduring a number of other health problems.

“Mankiller” covers a lot of ground in less than 75 minutes, telling much of the story of Wilma Mankiller’s life and work while also touching on the context of everything she did. Director and producer Valerie Red-Horse Mohl is of Cherokee heritage and it’s clear that the story of the Cherokee Nation, as well as the feminist story of Wilma Mankiller, are close to her heart. The film is educational but never feels like a lecture, with a straightforward narrative wrapped around all of the information being given to the audience.

Telling Wilma Mankiller’s story is especially important today, as someone in the documentary notes that she may be the “most significant and visible Native figure” in our history – yet she is not visible enough to many people. Her role in revitalizing her small community led her to make a worldwide difference and her story can be an inspiration to people of all backgrounds and ages.

Watch our interview with Director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl and Producer Gale Anne Hurd here. To learn more about Wilma Mankiller and where to watch “Mankiller” next visit www.mankiller.org

Featured image credit: Photo courtesy of Wilma Mankiller Foundation

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