Madonna Thunder Hawk and her daughter, Marcella Gilbert, are the focus of the film “Warrior Women,” directed by Elizabeth Castle and Christina D. King. Thunder Hawk was born into the Oohenumpa band of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and is most known as being a founding member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). She has been a fearless member of every modern Native American resistance against powers that attempt to bring down Native American people in the U.S.
On the evening of Nov. 25th, Thunder Hawk and Mable Ann Eagle Hunter came to Mills to offer a screening of the film. The night was curated by the Indigenous Women’s Alliance in celebration of Native American Heritage Month. The film highlighted Madonna Thunder Hawk and Marcella Gilberts’ journey through being vigilant members of the Red Power movement, the Alcatraz occupation, the North Dakota Access Pipeline resistance at Standing Rock and many more.
Warrior women are always among us. Your sister, your mother, your best friend. These are the women fighting because they find it is their duty. Thunder Hawk said, “We don’t look for the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s an intergenerational struggle, we have to keep on.” No matter what trial they face, they continue the work the world asks of them because they know their duty and responsibility is carrying on the fight.
Sitting in the dimmed lights of Lisser Hall, there was an emotion that lifted from the screen, sending the audience into the world of these women and the memories they recounted. Gilbert’s memories of the “We Will Remember Survival School” were striking. Her mother Thunder Hawk was her teacher and the class setting was unrestrictive, it was free, it was decolonized.
Survival School was where youth came to learn the true history of their Native Lakota ancestors. According to an article by the Indigenous Goddess Gang, the “We Will Remember Survival School” was “for Indian youth whose parents were facing federal charges or who had been drop-outs or ‘push-outs’ from the educational system.”
The film tells the story of how the school originated from sessions between Thunder Hawk and Gilbert where Gilbert was given accurate historical accounts of what truly happened to the Native people of the Cheyenne River Sioux.
Then kids from all around the reservation wanted to come and built it into a thriving educational space. The school itself was a declaration of cultural reclamation. “It was a political education, we learned what it meant to be Indian in this country,” Gilbert said.
“Warrior Women” is a time machine jumping between archival footage from the 1960s–80s of Thunder Hawk in action to present-day footage from Standing Rock of Thunder Hawk and Gilbert discussing the reality behind the resistance.
While taking a deep dive into the inner workings of each movement, “Warrior Women” focuses on the trials Thunder Hawk has faced, like the inevitable truth that her activism pulled her away from her daughter. Nevertheless, healing was still found and they have a relationship built of real love because in its darkest hours they committed to what they could be.
After the film screening, a Q&A was moderated by two Mills students, Mel Miguel, secretary of the Indigenous Women’s Alliance (IWA), and Kelli Rutherford, co-president of the IWA. Miguel recounted the opportunity to moderate as “the experience of a lifetime.” As the conversation evolved, intense nodding of heads by the audience continued and teachings by Thunder Hawk and Eagle Hunter became revelations for people.
“They are two powerful Native women and to be on stage with them talking about their personal journeys was something I truly will never forget. They are two of the most inspiring and witty women I’ve ever met,” Miguel said.
“Warrior Women” is an inside look into the passion that fuels the work Thunder Hawk and her family do to honor their ancestors and solidify a bright future for their people. The film is a must-watch for activists, ethnic studies majors and those with a heart for holding testimonies. These warrior women inspire: they know their purpose and pursue it at every cost.