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The Return of Navajo Boy (With 2008 Epilogue)
Set in the stunning landscape of Utah's Monument Valley, this unforgettable, universally acclaimed documentary chronicles the extraordinary saga of how a rediscovered 1950s silent film reel leads to the return of a long-lost brother to his Navajo family. Since the 1930s, members of the Cly family have lived in Monument Valley and appeared as subjects in countless photographs, postcards, and Hollywood westerns -- even in a home movie by legendary director John Ford and a propaganda film by a uranium mining company.
In 1997 filmmaker Jeff Spitz resurrected an old 1950s film called "Navajo Boy" and was able to track down the original subjects, the Cly family, to show it to them. Family matriarch Elsie Mae Cly Begay saw -- on film -- the faces of her late mother and, most heart-wrenching of all, her infant brother, who had been adopted by white missionaries and never heard from again. The vintage movie prompts Elsie to tell her family's story for the first time, from their work with filmmakers and tourists to the injurious effects of uranium mining on their health and culture.
Through a newspaper story about the rediscovery of the old "Navajo Boy" film, Elsie's long-lost brother, named John Wayne Cly in honor of the movie star, discovers his own lost heritage and travels to Utah for an emotional reunion with his brothers and sisters. "The Return of Navajo Boy" weaves the Cly family's voices, feelings, and personal stories into a powerful and revelatory depiction of one Native American family's experiences over the last century. The film casts a revealing light on the Native American side of picture-making and of the human costs of uranium mining in the Southwest. Perhaps most important, the film gives the Cly family the chance to voice its own story and, while giving new meaning to old pictures, performs a healing miracle of its own.
Part mystery, part expose, and wholly compelling, "The Return of Navajo Boy" will engender spirited discussion in a wide variety of courses in Native American studies, American history and studies, cultural anthropology, sociology, media studies, and environmental issues. It was produced by Jeff Spitz and Bennie Klain.
Note: The DVD version of the film includes a separate 15-minute 2008 Epilogue that documents how one very determined grandmother, Elsie Mae Begay, travels with the film and continues to work with the filmmakers to launch a federal investigation into uranium contamination of Navajo dwellings and raise awareness about environmental health hazards in the Navajo Nation.
"Like a finely made rug, The Return of Navajo Boy contains multiple layers of color, construction, and meaning.... A must-see." -- Native Peoples Magazine
"It's hard to imagine teaching a course in Native American studies or culture without using this remarkable film. It documents real people and real tragedies and depicts Navajo culture with unusual realism and understanding. The film is instructive, thought-provoking, and heartwarming, and addresses many critical environmental issues in addition to illuminating so much regarding Navajo history and family life. Highly recommended!" -- Duane Champagne, Director, American Indian Studies Center, UCLA
"I used this remarkable documentary in a large U.S. history survey course comprised mostly of students from Southeast Asian and Central American immigrant-refugee communities. They identified -- palpably -- with the separation anxiety, confused identity, and ethnographic commodification felt by the youthful 'protagonist' in this moving historical narrative about the steep psychosocial costs of being uprooted from one's family, home, and heritage. Although centered on the experiences of one Native American family, this film is an instructive text for all of us living through this era of pervasive social disasters and profound displacements." -- Art Hansen, Prof. of History and Director, Oral History Program, California State Univ., Fullerton
"This is what documentary filmmaking should be. The film repositions adversity and injustice involving a Navajo family from one of the most glorious places on earth, Monument Valley, Utah, to free the truth about the exploitation of America's Indians through illegal adoption, uranium mining, and Hollywood image makers, all of which profit shamelessly from Indians." -- Prof. Beverly R. Singer, Director, Alfonso Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies, Univ. of New Mexico
"Teachers in our Facing History and Ourselves Summer Institute were moved to laughter and then tears by this powerful film, and are eager to use it in history, English, and science classrooms to enhance important conversations and lessons about identity and the power of labels, membership and participation in society, and issues of justice and judgment. Students will be fascinated and deeply moved by this family story. Even though the film runs 57 minutes and class periods are often shorter, middle school and high school teachers can definitely incorporate Navajo Boy into classroom periods by showing the film in two parts and by contextualizing and processing its important themes." -- Jack Weinstein, Director, San Francisco Bay Area, Facing History and Ourselves
"When people talk about the transforming power of filmmaking, they are usually referring to artistic statements or emotional catharsis, but The Return of Navajo Boy reminds us that there is a different kind of power to be found in the moving image.... Not only did the film lead to the reunion of the Cly family with the long-lost John Wayne Cly, but it also brought public and legal attention to the issue of uranium mining, a former way of life in Monument Valley that has led to an alarmingly high cancer rate." -- Chicago Tribune
"Gives a powerful voice to flesh-and-blood Navajos. Through the experiences of the Cly family, we get an 'other side of the lens' perspective on tourism and filmmaking, and also learn how the tenacity of family bonds has helped them cope with the long-term effects of uranium mining and the tragedy of a coerced adoption. This thoughtful film can help college students begin to examine the stereotypes that permeate our national culture, to gain some understanding of Native people's lives at a personal scale, and perhaps to develop some perspectives on the cultural, social, and economic conditions that shape their own lives." -- Bill Lipe, Prof. Emeritus of Anthropology, Washington State Univ.
- Society for Visual Anthropology Award
- Audience Award, Durango Film Festival
- "Best Documentary," Aboriginal Voices Film Festival (Toronto)
- Sundance Film Festival Official Selection
- American Indian Film & Video Festival (San Francisco) honoree
- Native American Film & Video Festival (New York) honoree
- American Anthropological Assn. honoree
- American Library Association Notable Videos for Adults Award
- American Society for Ethnohistory honoree
- "Best Documentary," Indian Summer Film Festival, Milwaukee
- "Programmer's Choice Award," Planet In Focus Film Festival, Canada
- Selected for screening at more than a dozen major festivals and conferences worldwide
For additional and continuing information on the people and issues raised in the film, please visit http://www.navajoboy.com.