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If you don’t know much about activist Wilma Mankiller, now’s the time to change that. The documentary Mankiller, directed by Valerie Red-Horse Mohl and executive produced by Gale Anne Hurd, is airing on PBS stations around the US in celebration of Women’s History Month.

Promotional materials for the film have the tagline “Activist. Feminist. Cherokee Chief,” and Red-Horse Mohl — who is Cherokee herself — powerfully shows the story of Mankiller’s life and her political and activist career. We begin with Mankiller's childhood, during which her family was relocated from Oklahoma to San Francisco under the Bureau of Indian Affair’s Relocation Program; the move was supposed to relieve the family of the poor living conditions in their homeland and bring them to a “modern world.” We see her as a young adult, first becoming politically active with the Native American Occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. We see her decision to move back to Oklahoma in the 1970s and become active in community organizing. And we see her election as Cherokee Nation’s first female chief and the important work she did to improve the lives of Cherokees. Red-Horse Mohl also covers Mankiller’s personal life, including how a 1979 car accident that left Mankiller with disabilities also changed how she approached activism.


Along with interviews with Cherokee activists and elected officials, as well as Gloria Steinem, Red-Horse Mohl makes great use of archival footage of Mankiller, who passed away in 2010. The footage often shows Mankiller’s sense of humor — at one point she jokes that she’s going to tell the next person who asks about her name that “Mankiller” is a nickname, and she earned it. Red-Horse Mohl mirrors that humor in some of her narrative choices, such as in how she shows Mankiller's easy decision to divorce her first husband after he objected to her involvement in activism. Mankiller is that rare documentary that is informative and moving, but will make you laugh, too.

Find when Mankiller is airing in your area here and watch a trailer below.

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Erika W. Smith is BUST's digital editorial director. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @erikawynn and email her at erikawsmith@bust.com.

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