We saw "The Cherokee Word for Water" last night at the Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, and I cannot recommend it too highly.
It's a rather modest but extraordinary and beautiful film about Wilma Mankiller, first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, a very well-known American who is sorely missed. She passed away in 2010 after a long illness. The movie is clearly a labor of love, a more than 20 year project by Kristina Kiehl and Charlie Soap (Charlie was/is Wilma's husband and partner), both of whom were at the screening last night. We had the opportunity to meet Wilma and chat with her a bit in California about 10 years ago or so, and to tell the truth, the encounter has always stayed with us. She was an inspiration not only to the people of the Cherokee Nation, but to women and indigenous peoples all over the world.
The film deals with her first project for and with the Cherokee Nation, well before she was elected Principal Chief. She worked with Charlie Soap -- who was then housing coordinator for the Nation -- on bringing piped water to some isolated communities like Bell and Oak Ridge in Adair County, Oklahoma, a project that required that the people in the communities that would benefit from the water would voluntarily band together ('gadugi') by digging 18 miles of trench through rocky and hilly terrain, laying the pipe themselves, and recover some of their sense of purpose, society and tradition in the process.
It was nearly magical. People who had been downtrodden and neglected for generations, most of them full blood Cherokee, were able to come together to build something for themselves and their communities that they never thought possible, and in doing so, they regained a sense of pride, self-worth and balance. And of course the all important sense of community.
Those were qualities that Wilma always tried to express and inculcate in the people she encountered, educated, and uplifted. There is a reason why she was so beloved by so many.
The film is particularly apropos, I think, in New Mexico, where its inspirational qualities resonate through all the regional communities. The stories are told over and over of communities coming together -- often after generations of neglect, dispossession and worse at the hands of an ultimately worse-than-useless state/bureaucracy -- to accomplish extraordinary goals that help return a sense of pride, self-worth and balance to the people as a whole. \
We like to talk big about "de-colonization." Well, Wilma Mankiller and Charlie Soap showed one way to do it, by taking the reins and doing it, against odds, it's true, but with the spirit of the People behind you.
Charlie's grandfather tells him a story in the film that illustrated the idea of how you do it against odds. Charlie was terribly depressed at the struggle he was facing with the tribe and the communities, and with certain individuals who seemed intent on preventing or destroying the water project. He was going to leave the Cherokee Nation and take a job he'd been offered in Colorado. Charlie's grandfather said that when a storm is coming, cows will try to get away from it, and sometimes they won't make it because the storm overtakes them, and then they die. Buffalo, on the other hand, face the storm head on, and surprisingly quickly, it passes by. Buffalo almost always survive even the worst storms.
Charlie's grandfather told him, "You're already a buffalo..."
'The Cherokee Word for Water' is not being distributed traditionally. It is available for presentation practically anywhere, however, through Tugg.com, and wherever possible, Charlie and Kristine will attend screenings and discuss the picture with the audience.
Oh, and the Cherokee word for water? "A-ma" (ᎠᎹ).