Mankiller sounds like the kind of movie title you’d expect from the The Walking Dead’s executive producer–a filmmaker who, long before her post-apocalyptic smash hit, was already known as the “First Lady of Sci-Fi” for her writing and producing credits on Terminator and Aliens. But the arresting title of Gale Anne Hurd’s new documentary-in-progress is not a symbol of dystopia or even violence. Mankiller is the last name of a remarkable person–Wilma Mankiller, the first female Chief of the Cherokee Nation. But though Mankiller made tremendous social and economic strides for her people and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, today, only five years after her death, she risks being lost to history. Most people have never heard of her or know little about her accomplishments.
Hurd now hopes to cement Mankiller’s place as a 20th-century American heroine, though she’s taking an unlikely approach, especially for someone who has a record-breaking television show to her credit: she’s launched a Kickstarter. “Documentarians need to be able to tell the truth, without bias or pressure from corporate sponsors who might have a particular agenda,” says Hurd. “Kickstarter supporters want the real story to be told, not one that is manufactured.”
In addition to ensuring that the project maintains narrative autonomy, the Kickstarter campaign is also a way of publicizing the film before it’s even finished. Selling a documentary is always a struggle, even for the producer of The Walking Dead. “The documentary as a medium is one that very often misses out on mainstream attention,” says Hurd. “Even the documentary films nominated for Academy Awards are unknown to many people, so building up a community that cares about real stores, not just scripted ones, is so very important.”
The documentary has already received half of its funding from Vision Maker Media for PBS, but it does not have a distributor. Understandably, then, Hurd is drawing on The Walking Dead’s success to help fuel interest in the project. A number of Walking Dead actors appear in the doc’s promo video, including Scott Wilson (Hershel Greene), who has Native American heritage. Backers will receive a plethora of Walking Dead memorabilia from comic books to season box sets, signed by the show’s creators.
Hurd has long been interested in telling Native American stories. With director Valerie Red-Horse, she co-produced True Whispers and Choctaw Code Talkers, two films about Native Americans who were conscripted to help the U.S. military create coded messages during both world wars. “Native Americans, sadly, are perhaps the most overlooked and marginalized minority in America, and yet they were indeed the original Americans,” says Hurd. In the U.S., we tend to view the country’s indigenous peoples with fascination and discomfort. We glorify them in films like Dances With Wolves and Windtalkers. But as Hurd points out, “how many of those films have been about Native American women–and not just Native American women who helped white settlers or explorers to survive? Far too few.”
The Mankiller campaign runs for 30 days, starting March 9. The documentary will be co-produced by Gale Anne Hurd via Valhalla Entertainment, and Valerie Red-Horse, a director of Cherokee ancestry and founder of Red-Horse Native Productions, Inc.