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Trailblazer: Documentary celebrates Wilma Mankiller, first female leader of the Cherokees

Wilma Mankiller is a name that everyone should know.

This is exactly why Gale Anne Hurd wanted to make a documentary about the trailblazing woman.

“Mankiller” will air at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 29, on New Mexico PBS, Channel 5.1.

The documentary chronicles the life of the first woman to be elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

It celebrates a leader who defied all odds to make a difference for her people.

During a time when American Indians found themselves disenfranchised and undervalued by the United States at large, Mankiller emerged as a champion of the Cherokee Nation and became its first female principal chief in 1985. She passed away in 2010.

Mankiller is often omitted from history books despite ranking among revolutionary leaders such as Harriet Tubman or Eleanor Roosevelt, Hurd says.

Hurd, who executive-produced the documentary, began the project in 2011, a year after Mankiller’s death.

“It’s been a long incubation period,” she says. “We started the project by reaching out to her widower, her daughters and her best friend. With their help, we were able to pull together so many people. Then we literally spent three to four years compiling over 700 different items. We had news broadcasts and her own writings, which we tracked down the owners for the film.”

One aspect that surprised Hurd about Mankiller’s life is the amount of turmoil she endured.

“She had her own personal trail of tears,” she says. “Her father was part of the Indian relocation program, and it was another ill-advised assimilation program by the U.S. government to create urban Indians. It essentially was to get rid of any Native American or indigenous identity. It was devised by Dillon Myer, who was responsible for initiating the Japanese internment camps. But she never let it get her down. She wasn’t bitter, and she wasn’t consumed with anger. She had a resolve that we could all learn from.”

The documentary has been screened at film festivals across the country.

Hurd says it’s been very successful.

“It’s given us an opportunity to talk to people, to talk to them personally,” she says. “The response is that this is an important documentary about what great leadership looks like. There were plenty of obstacles she overcame. Even my worst day is an easier one than what she battled. Now we’re able to share her story with so many people throughout the country. We hope to have a long life for the documentary. Museums have already shown interest in getting education materials.”

SEND ME YOUR TIPS: If you know of a movie filming in the state, or are curious about one, email Follow me on Twitter @agomezART.

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