The Cherokee Word for Water is a film about the events surrounding the late Wilma Mankiller’s life that led to her political career, and ultimately to becoming the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
The film begins with Mankiller returning to Oklahoma from California in the late 1970s, and follows her as she meets her future husband, Charlie Soap, and has a near-fatal car wreck, but the film is centered on the Bell Water project. Bell is a community in the Cherokee Nation where most residents did not have indoor plumbing. Mankiller, the director of the Nation’s Community Development Department at the time, and Soap, who also worked for the Nation, began an outreach program to the community which led to the tribe supplying equipment and assistance for a 16 mile waterline that members of the community dug themselves. The project gained considerable attention as a model of self-sufficiency and self-determination in Indian country. Based on her popularity from the Bell project, Mankiller successfully ran for Deputy Chief in 1983; the position led to her succeeding Chief Ross Swimmer when he was appointed as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1985.
The film, which Mankiller helped plan before her passing in 2010, was shot on location around Tahlequah, Oklahoma, mostly on property belonging to Mankiller’s family. The cast, starring Kimberly Guerrero as Mankiller and Moses Brings Plenty as Soap, was entirely made up of Native Americans.
Kristina Kiehl, a friend of Mankiller and one of the producers of the film, noted that making the film was, in some ways, like the Bell Water Project; some of the people involved had worked in film before, some had not, and a lot of people did not believe they could do it.
“Everybody sort of learned what they were capable of, and did the impossible in a short amount of time,” Kiehl said. “People were really pleasantly surprised.”
According to Kiehl, refining the script to the point where it satisfied Mankiller took years. “The script had to reflect the community, it had to reflect Wilma and Charlie, and it had to reflect the Indian humor as well as the situation, and that was a tough one to really get right," she said. "When we talked to people in Hollywood about this script they would always say that we needed to beef up the love story, and Wilma and Charlie were very clear that it would not focus on the love story.“
Charlie Soap, who was married to Mankiller, also co-directed, co-produced, and even has a cameo at the end of the film. He said the terrain in the Cherokee Nation is rough, and when they were laying the pipeline they used a lot of dynamite to blast their way through the rocks. “That’s what I wanted to see,” Soap laughed. “‘Let’s blow up something.’”
Soap confessed he found it difficult to work on the film at first because he was still grieving while the film shoot recreated scenes from his life with Mankiller. However, he also found that being so close to the project helped him in the scenes he directed.
“It was really hard at first to do, to be involved in the film because Wilma had just passed and it was a little emotional for me,” Soap said. “Finally when I got past that and they asked me to direct I was taken aback, I thought ‘That’s crazy!’ But then I thought this is my life, Wilma and I lived this life, and I realized I could do it, I could tell these people what the scene is about. That’s how I took it, that’s how I did each of those scenes; in this one it seemed this was what was going on, so you need to put emotion to it or just laid back or whatever. It was easy because I had lived that life.”
Having lived the story also gave Soap an advantage in getting the equipment and cast to some of the remote areas where he wanted to shoot. Soap recalled that the production manager insisted certain filming sites were too inaccessible. Soap responded by using a bulldozer, which was on site to use in the film, to clear a path.
“I knew there was no way to take that equipment down that hill so we had to build a road,” Soap said. “We did it; we made it look more real.”
Both Soap and Kiehl stress that Mankiller did not want the story to be about her; she wanted to celebrate the Native people in the film.
“It was a community that overcame obstacles that people thought couldn’t be overcome,” Soap said. “Wilma wanted to show that the community needed water and instead of contractors doing it we went in and talked to the people about doing it as self-help. At first it was a surprise to them that they would do this major water line. One of the things Wilma said was, ‘The people can do anything they want to do if they set their mind to it.’”