kitparkerfilms

Stranded in the Navajo Nation

Posted on: October 14, 2020

Thank you John Ford

 

 

Several years ago, my wife, Donna, and I decided to take a trip through the Arizona portion of the Navajo (Diné) Nation.  The Nation covers 27,413 square miles located mostly in Arizona, but also Utah and New Mexico.  Monument Valley was on my (and any John Ford fan) bucket list.   We also planned on visiting Canyon de Chelly (pronounced: DE-SHAY). As I said, the Nation is big, very big, but most of it is sparsely populated with quite a bit of poverty, particularly in the rural areas.  By  poverty, I mean the real deal: no running water, electricity or conventional forms of heating and cooling.  200,000 live on the reservation, two-thirds of the total members of the tribe.

 

Kayenta, Arizona is right in the center of it, the proverbial middle of nowhere, the last choice for a car to break down.   My car limped into a gas station and the attendant said they had a terrific mechanic who would be back “soon.”   I pressed him on when, to which he responded, “It could be today, tomorrow, two days or a week from now, we’re talking ‘Indian Time’.”

 

Stagecoach | Great Books Guy

John Ford’s “Stagecoach” – Filmed in Monument Valley

 

Fortunately, Kayenta is close to Monument Valley, so Donna and I engaged a tour guide.  Turned out we were the only ones on the tour, and the guide gave us special treatment, bringing us into the far reaches of the valley where tourists normally don’t go.  (Tours must be conducted by Navajos)  Our guide taught us things about Valley, and the Navajo way of life, past and present.  

 

The gas station was my home for the next day and a half awaiting the mechanic.  Customers would start pumping gas, and then come over and talk with me about all kinds of things.  Every story was interesting; I learned a lot.  The lack of jobs, poor access to healthcare, rampant use of drugs, and many Navajo school children lived so far out of town and their kids often had 90 minute bus rides to and from school.

 

Several times I walked around the town.  Its supermarket was like any other with the exception of row and rows of paper plates, plastic cups, forks, etc.   You can’t wash dishes without running water.  There was another row as far as you could see with sugary drinks.  One in five Native Americans has diabetes.  Many of the older people spoke only in Navajo, and some women wore beautiful traditional dresses adorned with turquoise jewelry. 

 

The Black Mesa Twin Theater was showing the latest Star Wars movie.  I saw a long line of patrons entering the theater, but the exit doors were padlocked from the outside.  When I asked the manager how can people leave, he said there was no problem because they unlock the exit doors when the movie ends.  Not sure what the fire marshal would say.

 

Eventually the mechanic showed up and fixed the problem in ten minutes.  By that time we needed to get back to Phoenix, so had to forego Canyon de Chelly…for the time being.

 

Several years later we decided to plan another trip to the Canyon.  It’s located near Chinle, Arizona, known for friendly, upbeat people and one of the lowest crime rates in the entire United States.  

 

Canyon de Chelly and is extraordinarily beautiful, with gorgeous rock formations.  We took another tour hosted by a Navajo guide.  Again, learned a lot.   

 

 

When we returned home, I started thinking about the docudrama, “Navajo” (Lippert, 1952), filmed in the de Chelly area.  It’s the story of a seven-year-old Navajo boy who stoically endures hardship, hunger and the death of his family.  He is taken away to attend a white man boarding school and escapes, but is pursued into ancient Navajo caves in the Canyon.    The working title was “The Voice of the Wind,” and despite a shoestring $30,000 production budget, a threatened ban by the Indian Service, harsh weather and terrain, infighting between the co-producers, the picture went on to earn universal critical acclaim.   Simple narrated story, beautifully photographed; none of the usual Indian stereotypes.

 

The boy, played by seven-year-old Francis Kee Teller, did not speak English and had never seen a movie before.   A translator gave director’s wishes to the boy.  Nonetheless, his performance garnered him a special Golden Globe.  Although it is a drama, it was nominated for an Oscar® for Best Documentary Feature.

 

Publicity tie-in with Santa Fe Railroad**

 

I learned that the Academy Film Archive (part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) had preserved the film, so arranged to have a 2K transfer made with the goal of putting it out on DVD.   The picture and sound turned out great.

 

Always on the lookout for special features, I had hoped to locate someone who was around during the filming of the movie.   Maybe even hit the jackpot and find someone who worked on it, or actually in it – a real long shot.  

 

Following up on a tip, I called a man in his 70s living on the reservation who purportedly was in the movie.  Turns out it was Francis Kee Teller, himself, and he would be happy to record a commentary track!

 

Soon after, we trekked up to the Canyon again to meet Mr. Teller, a friendly, dignified, soft spoken gentleman with many interesting stories to tell. 

 

Francis Kee Teller in 2019

 

I like to produce commentary tracks with the interviewee in front of a TV and simply run the picture without sound, hoping for extemporaneous comments about whatever memories come up.    

 

Teller’s recording went well, but I wanted more extra features.

 

Although “Navajo” was beautifully filmed in black and white (received an Oscar® nomination for Best Cinematography)*, it made sense to include a tour of the same locations, only in color.

 

Fortress Rock 

 

Mr. Teller said his niece, Deborah Lem, was a good photographer, and she agreed to produce a photo-essay of the Canyon.  It turned out Deborah had a gift for photography, and went so far as to trek into the areas seldom photographed, including Fortress Rock and Massacre Cave.  Her photos of poignant petroglyphs are a highlight.  She tells about the painful massacre of women and children, and the infamous “long walk,” in 1864 where Navajo’s were forced to walk 250 – 400 miles to New Mexico on foot.  It is estimated 200 died of starvation and the elements, all due to the Army’s cruel relocation campaign.  (They were eventually allowed to return home)

 

Genny Yazzie

 

Deborah also recorded an interview with her friend, Genny Yazzie, who lives and farms in the Canyon as did her ancestors.   The title of the piece is “The Canyon Matters,” and is accompanied with more beautiful photographs by both Deborah and Genny.

 

Young Teller at the Smithsonian**

 

The Margaret Herrick Library, part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, had series of photographs taken of young Teller as part of a publicity campaign to tout the movie in New York and Washington D.C.   I obtained copies, and had Mr. Teller, who had never seen them before, shared his memories of each one.

 

On eBay, I bought a mint copy of a Kodachrome documentary, “Our Navajo Neighbors,” coincidentally also filmed in 1952.  It’s included, as well.   

 

“Navajo,” is unlike other movies one expects from Kit Parker Films, but my car breaking down in the middle of nowhere provided the seed for one of my most interesting and personal projects.  All profits are being donated to Navajo charities.

 

“Unusual, truly picturesque and convincing” – New York Times

 

*Cinematographer Virgil Miller started out in silent pictures and became known primarily for filming travelogues.  He had a reputation for keeping cameras rolling in remote locations under adverse weather conditions.  The producers needed a cameraman with those qualities, and tracked him down at a camera shop where he repaired photographic equipment.   At age 64, Miller took on the challenge of working in freezing cold, with only one camera, a tripod and four reflectors, and came away with an Academy Award® nomination, and a full spread in the prestigious American Cinematographer.

**Photos courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library

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