Warrior Women premiered on PBS and the World Channel on March 4 to positive reviews. The documentary features the lives of Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal members and renown activists Madonna Thunder Hawk and her daughters Marcella and Mabel Ann.
Throughout the film, we are treated to intimate and candid conversations between mother and daughters as they sit in a circle, openly discussing their involvement with the American Indian Movement, Women of All Red Nations, the takeover of Alcatraz, and the NoDAPL movement.
The film also features early recordings and interviews of Madonna during the Wounded Knee siege and the consequent establishment of the We Will Remember Survival School. Madonna taught at the school with the philosophy of providing decolonized education by teaching young children about treaty rights, encroachment, the genocide of native people, as well as traditional survival lessons.
Recalling the time when racial tensions were high in South Dakota and the aftermath of the AIM movement, and being a young child attending the survival school, Marcella shared her thoughts:
“People think, ‘Indians always knew we were powerful and we always acted that way’, but we didn’t. Everybody accepted the racism but during that time. But people were standing up and saying, ‘Hey, yeah, I am Indian. We want to be who we are, not who you are’.”
Being a part of AIM was just one of the many facets of Madonna’s life that is shown, but it sets the tone for the film. There are numerous clips and photos of the Wounded Knee and Alcatraz takeovers which viewers are treated to, with voiceover commentary from Madonna.
Historically, the faces of AIM have been male dominated; however, the women of AIM played vital roles within the movement and throughout the documentary, there is plenty of archival footage showing Madonna taking charge, organizing, and leading.
“The press just automatically gravitated toward the men and who really knew what was going on and was really running the show were the women,” said Madonna.
Although she was renown as an activist and a leader, she was also a mother, one who we learn was constantly on the go, fighting for causes that she deeply believed in. In the film, we are told of Madonna’s childhood, surviving the horrific Indian boarding school institution. We see the deep emotional toll that boarding school took on her and how it affected her emotions and spilled over into her parenting style.
Some of the most intimate moments of the film are the candid interviews from Madonna’s daughters when they speak of their mother and their personal struggles.
“She was so busy taking on the work of her people and all of those guys, it swallowed them up. She wasn’t there for us emotionally, so I didn’t know how to be there for me emotionally. I found other ways to find that. Drinking was fun and that’s where I went,” said Marcella.
We learn that Madonna’s mother was also a boarding school survivor who spent 18 years in a school without loving adults and where love was not taught. We are led to conclude this factor also had great influence on Madonna’s parenting style.
“It’s easier for me to think of her as Madonna the activist, rather than my mom, because all of the other stuff gets in the way. And then I can see her for who she is and probably the way other people see her- she’s really a cool, strong, beautiful woman,” said Marcella.
There are numerous video clips of Marcella and her daughter at powwows, with Marcy helping her daughter get dressed in her regalia, and lovingly braiding her daughter’s hair.
“One of the things I do take pride in is taking the time to be with my children and raising them- being actively involved in their lives, because that was something my mom didn’t get to do. I’ve never tried to talk to her about it, because I realized that she was not raised to be open with her feelings,” said Marcella.
As a parent, Marcella said she began initiating love and saying “I love you” to her children, which then caught on with the rest of her family.
“She [Marcella] is more loving and more emotional and that’s good because that cycle was broken by her and her generation,” said Madonna.
A pivotal point in the film is when Madonna is exercising and working out on bleachers. She said that although it gets harder every year, she continues to stay physically active because it enables her to physically continue her community work.
At the end of the film, we see Marcella take center stage during a United Nations’ Indigenous People’s Symposium session, serving as chairwoman. Madonna later recognizes and thanks her daughter during a U.N. speech to an applause.
The film is a great tribute to the lifework and the heroine who is Madonna Thunder Hawk. It also a candid look at historical trauma, and overcoming trauma with love and perseverance. Most importantly, it is a film about how remarkably strong and capable indigenous women are, and the contributions they make throughout Indian Country.
The film is vibrant with clips of Cheyenne River, local powwows, the Lakota Cultural Center, and guest appearances from local people, who you will recognize. Watch it, share it, and enjoy this treasure.
The film is available to view for free until March 28 at www.worldchanngel.org.