The Cherokee Word for Water

By Terra Trevor

I was born to a teenage mother and father within a wide circle of grandparents and great grandparents, and we were poor. But we had water.

Having water meant we always had plenty to eat. We had fresh running water to rinse, soak and simmer pots of pinto beans and black-eyed peas.

In the summer when rainfall was not plentiful, since the water table was usually high, we could turn the hose on to soak the apple and peach tree and their fruit fed us in return.

There was water for pie baking, and when the sun seared overhead water to mix with kool aid to freeze into popsicles. Home canned goods must be put up in hot, sterilized jars and we had water for boiling before we used them. We had water to wash our hands before pressing a tortilla on a hot skillet, and it was clean and safe to drink.

When no one else believed in them, 
they believed in each other.

Set in the early 1980s, the story of The Cherokee Word for Water begins in a small town in rural Oklahoma where many houses lack running water. The film tells the story of a tribal community joining together to build a waterline by using traditional Native values of reciprocity and interdependence and is told from the perspective of Wilma Mankiller and Charlie Soap, who join forces to battle opposition and build a 16-mile waterline system using a community of volunteers. In the process, they inspire the townspeople to trust each other, to trust their way of thinking, and to spark a reawakening of the universal indigenous values of reciprocity and interconnectedness. This project also inspired a self-help movement in Indian Country that continues to this day.

The film is dedicated to Wilma Mankiller’s vision, compassion and incredible grace, and tells the story of the work that led her to become the Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Project by CW4W, Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

The Cherokee Word for Water

Terra Trevor is the author of a diverse body of work, and a contributing author of 10 books. Her work has also appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies, literary journals and online. She was born in California, with roots in Colorado and Oklahoma, raised in a tradition rich with storytelling, and is happiest in the mountains or near water. Visit her at

  • If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. —Barry Lopez, in Crow and Weasel