Native American Heritage Month: Celebrate it with The Cherokee Word for Water

By: Haley Buzzard | Guest Contributor
Stephanie Conduff | Law Clerk |
Theodore J. Griswold | Partner |

November is Native American Heritage Month, and this brings to mind a lesson that modern day problems can still be solved through the use of traditional concepts, and strong resolve. This lesson is brought home in The Cherokee Word for Water, a feature-length motion picture that tells the story that led Wilma Pearl Mankiller to become the first modern woman Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Inspired by the true story of the struggle and ultimate success of a rural Cherokee Nation community to bring running water to their families by using the traditional concept of gadugi – working together for the good of the community.

This story has a beginning similar to thousands of Native families during the Relocation Era. Chief Mankiller’s family was relocated from the Cherokee Nation, in Northeastern Oklahoma, to San Francisco as part of the 1950s Indian Relocation Act of 1956 (Public Law 959). This was an effort by the federal government to try to incentivize Native people to move from rural areas and Native communities to highly populated city centers in an effort to assimilate our way of life, culture, language, food sources, families in exchange for employment opportunities. Despite this terrible federal policy failure, she was constantly aware of her Cherokee way of life and other Native people and their heritage. Growing up, she invested her time building a Native community and developing her leadership skills in the Bay Area. In the 1970s she returned to her home in Oklahoma where she learned that there was a tremendous amount of work to do to help her community.

The movie is based on the true story of the Bell Waterline Project. At the time—the 1980s—many of the homes in her rural Cherokee Nation community lacked running water. Wilma Mankiller saw this as untenable, and dedicated herself to change the situation. (There is more community work to be done as we still have Cherokee Nation citizens living without running water in our communities and in other Native communities throughout Indian Country).

For the Bell Waterline Project to be successful it would require unlikely neighbors to join forces and build nearly twenty miles of waterline using a community of volunteers. Imagine a large scale construction project spanning twenty miles using elders, youth, Natives, non-Natives, borrowing used equipment, sandy terrain, rolling hills and unpredictable weather. Engineering and construction companies would balk at the challenge. But Wilma built a community. And the community built the pipeline.

In the process, they inspired the community to trust each other, and reawaken universal indigenous values of reciprocity and interconnectedness. At the service celebrating her life, the program described Chief Mankiller the way we both remember her: She was rare person, who was as comfortable in the White House as she was in a farmhouse. Wilma was not only an author, lecturer and a leader of people but also a mother, a daughter, a wife and neighbor. She was a sister and a friend. She overcame personal and professional challenges with grace the belied the difficulty of the task.

The successful completion of the waterline sparked a movement of similar self-help projects across the Cherokee Nation and in Indian Country that continues to this day. This is the purest form of self-determination. During Native American Heritage Month, we are mindful of those who came before us and created both the legal and physical infrastructure of our community here in the Cherokee Nation. Chief Mankiller wanted to be remembered as the person who helped us restore faith in ourselves [and our ways of life]. For Haley and myself, she did that. Not just in Native American Heritage Month, but each and every day. As Wilma taught us: Every Day is a Good Day.

The Wilma Mankiller Foundation

The Wilma Mankiller Foundation, a fund of Tulsa Community Foundation, seeks to continue Wilma Mankiller’s legacy of social justice and community development in Indian Country. The mission of the Foundation is to support and promote culturally appropriate community and economic development projects in Native communities, to advance educational and women’s leadership opportunities for Native people. Chief Mankiller agreed and summed that up by simply stating public perception drives public policy. Those perceptions caused Chief Mankiller to view the The Cherokee Word For Water as her chosen legacy, not because she wanted a movie about herself, but rather she felt this movie could influence public perception as well as the Native self image. She also wanted people everywhere to be inspired to trust their own thinking to solve community problems together. Any profits from the film will go back to the foundation to support economic development and education throughout Indian Country. The Cherokee Word For Water demonstrates the positive attributes of modern Native communities and provides positive role models for Native youth in the mainstream media.

We encourage you to preorder this film today. It is a way to support Indian Country. It is a great addition to your DVD collection, a gift for a friend or a donation to school or community library. Maybe you could host a Native American Heritage Month watch party with friends? We will be having one…

You can preorder the film here:

Haley Buzzard-Hamilton is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas. She graduated from DePaul University with a Master of Public Service. She also attended Haskell Indian Nations University. Buzzard worked for the Cherokee Nation government and Cherokee Nation Businesses. She is a passionate and energetic leader dedicated to working with Native people to create change in communities, supporting community relations at the local, state, and federal levels. She is especially thankful for the leadership and mentoring of strong Cherokee women including that of Wilma Mankiller, Sharon Blackfox, Maggie Studi, and Barbara Starr-Scott.

Stephanie Conduff is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. She is especially thankful for the leadership and mentoring of strong Cherokee women including that of Wilma Mankiller, Gina Olaya, Paula Ragsdale, Cara Cowan Watts, and Melanie Knight. Women in leadership roles can help restore balance and wholeness to our communities.

Ted is head of the Native American Law practice group and primary editor for the Blogging Circle. Connect with Ted at and 619.515.3277.