Wilma Mankiller: An American Hero
Wilma Mankiller humbly defied the odds and overcame insurmountable obstacles to fight injustice and give voice to the voiceless. She overcame rampant sexism and personal challenges to emerge as the Cherokee Nation’s first woman Principal Chief in 1985. A new documentary, Mankiller, tells the story of this American hero. National Women’s History Museum Ambassador Gale Anne Hurd, the film’s executive producer, spoke with Shanna Duncan about this project.
What was it about Wilma Mankiller that drew you to this project?
Hurd: I had never heard of her! I thought it was a travesty that a woman who had such a profound effect on her people and her nation was someone I had never heard of. And I felt it was absolutely important to tell her remarkable story. She was the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee nation. She was a uniter of people and worked in a bipartisan way and people needed to know more about her.
What was something you learned about her that surprised you?
Hurd: She was very humble and didn’t talk about herself or her achievements. She illuminated that in the original culture women were revered and cosigned treaties along with the men. It was through interaction with the US and previously with Britain that their culture changed. It became a petticoat democracy, and women were looked down upon. Who in the world, in their right mind would allow women to achieve such important leaders? And it took that long until Wilma was elected for them to resume that level of leadership.
It made me realize the effects that colonization and the power a dominant culture has over cultures that predate it.
She considered herself a liberal Democrat, but was asked initially to run as deputy chief under Ross Swimmer who was a conservative Republican. He told her, “You get things done and I can trust you. We don’t need to see eye to eye on everything.”
She was part of a relocation program to the [San Francisco] Bay Area, and that’s where she became an activist. At the time, the Black Panthers provided outreach of all underserved communities, not just African Americans, but all disenfranchised communities. She became an activist and participated in the occupation of Alcatraz. It was from a community center that she learned about Native American activism. It wasn’t something that she ever saw was going to be her path. But our lives are impacted by who we encounter, who mentors us and our ability when offered an opportunity to have the confidence to say yes – even if we don’t know that we can be successful. We know from research that boys have that and that society values it in men and inhibits it in women.
What do you think her legacy is?
Hurd: She said many times that during her time on earth she wanted to do what she could to make a difference for her nation. And she did. She developed educational programs, increased access to health care, and she had to make a lot of very difficult decisions along that path. She overcame rampant sexism to get elected. She and her running mate received threats, tires were slashed, but he didn’t say to stand down. Swimmer stood up for her. Later she made the decision to allow gaming, realizing the difference it would make for her people. Through gaming and the economic engine it has become for the Cherokee, they are able to have the kind of infrastructure for education and health care they needed to improve those, and she was the prime mover behind all of that.
What should girls and young women who may not know anything about her walk away with?
Hurd: If you can dream it you can be it. She was a woman who grew up in tremendous poverty. She had a relationship with a husband who wanted her to be a stay at home wife and mother, but she had a dream to go back to the Cherokee Nation with her two daughters. She lived in her car, and within a very few years became principal chief—through hard work and drive and the realization she could make a difference for her people. If she can do it, you can do it.
As an Ambassador for the National Women’s History Museum, why do you think it’s important to tell the stories of women like Wilma Mankiller?
Hurd: I think that we see so often, we read on social media and the mainstream media and get the feeling that women aren’t equipped to do certain things. Yet without women we wouldn’t have computers! History is told through a male lens. It’s time to refocus that lens and realize that regardless of the odds stacked against them, women are equally responsible not only for the achievements but also for the humanitarian causes that we rely on to this day. And we will need to do that even more so in the future.
I firmly believe that if our nation and the world were more aware of what women can achieve and of their contributions we would have a woman president by now.
It is so important to have a place where not only girls and women can go, but where boys and men can go to see, to have their eyes opened and hopefully there will be fewer memos like the Google memo about what women can and can’t do. All of the achievements that we have accomplished so far are hanging in the balance.
About Gale Anne Hurd
Hurd’s career as a producer was launched when she produced and co-wrote The Terminator. Hurd’s additional feature credits include the Academy Award winning film The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Ghost and The Darkness, Academy Award-Nominated Armageddon, The Incredible Hulk, Tremors, Dante’s Peak, Æon Flux, The Punisher, Dick and The Waterdance. She has also produced two other documentaries on Native American subjects, True Whispers: The Story of The Navajo Code Talkers and Choctaw Code Talkers. Hurd is currently an Executive Producer on The Walking Dead, which reigns as the most watched scripted cable drama, as well as the AMC companion series, Fear the Walking Dead. In 2015, Hurd was awarded the prestigious David O. Selznick Award for Achievement in Motion Pictures by the Producers Guild of America, and she was inducted into the International Women’s Forum Hall of Fame in 2014. In 2012, Hurd received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Mankiller is produced by Red Horse Native Productions and Valhalla Entertainment for a presentation of Vision Maker Media with major funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Nonprofits, educational institutions and public libraries can obtain copies of the documentary from Good Docs.