The Return of Navajo Boy

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From an Old Movie to a New Media Campaign

Published: April 15, 2010
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I want you to know about a timely story – a human interest story with a Navajo connection. It’s a story that unfolds like a chain reaction. It involves a Chicago filmmaker who discovered a Navajo family with a strange history involving Hollywood, uranium mining, and a long lost baby.

This is a journey that I began without a clue in 1997 here in Chicago.

A local homebuilder named Bill Kennedy (Kennedy Homes Inc) asked me for advice because he had found an old silent film called “Navaho Boy: The Monument Valley Story” which he said his late father made in the 1950s. Bill said he wanted to figure out what to do with it. He contacted me because I make documentary films and because he knew my father–in-law. This was the beginning of a very strange odyssey for me. I had no experience in Native America. Never even met a Navajo.

The Journey Begins

I showed his father’s film to the Newberry Library’s D’Arcy McNichol Center which is a research institute that advises on Native American topics. The “expert” there said it was just another example of Indians being exploited by white men. He said it would be painful for Navajos to see the film because it contained a sacred Navajo healing ceremony. He said it was never supposed to be filmed. I asked him what I should do with the old film. He said burn it. Instead of taking his advice, I decided to look for the people in the old film. Bill Kennedy wanted to give it back to Navajos. He hoped the history captured in his dad’s film would be useful in some way.

The Navajo family that appeared as unidentified Indians in Bill’s father’s film in the 1950s comes back to life in our new documentary film, titled “The Return of Navajo Boy.”

Our film actually reunited the Navajo family with a long lost baby who was taken away by white missionaries. His name is John Wayne Cly. He appears as a baby in the old film. He appears as a middle aged man in our new film. John Wayne Cly’s story is unforgettable. To have seen this with my own eyes and to be partly responsible for such a reunion is a blessing.

“The Return of Navajo Boy” premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2000 and later aired nationally on PBS. It made international news. What was unique was the Navajo voice and point of view in this film. The grandmother at the center of our story, Elsie Mae Begay, said “there are thousands of pictures of us, but we never go to say anything.” She appreciated getting to see herself and her family living the way they did back in the day. She said it made her feel young again. She speaks in both Navajo and English in the film. She participated in the editing and her son, Lorenzo, narrated the film. We worked together in a cross-cultural creative process that I had never tried before. I was fortunate to have Bennie Klain, a Navajo radio journalist, with us working as a co-producer. He gave the film its Navajo voice.

A History in Images

Kennedy’s father’s film was one of many films featuring Elsie’s family. In most of the old films and postcards of her family she appears as a voiceless teenager. Ironically, one of the other films was a pro-uranium mining film made by Kerr-McGee Corporation and titled “A Navajo Journey.” I found it in the Smithsonian Institute Natural History Museum.

I made it a personal mission to find Elsie’s family images and bring them back to the family in Monument Valley. We formed a very close bond. But weaving a new film out of the threads of old films was only half the battle. Our film is about family, filmmaking, and environmental justice.

Authentic Navajo voices and our modest film started a groundswell that caused a federal investigation of uranium houses. The main character in our film and matriarch of the family, Elsie, showed me the uranium house that she had lived in with her 8 children. She also showed me the uranium mine on the mesa directly above her home. And she showed me the old mining equipment that had been left there to rust in the desert. Two of her sons died of cancer. These tragedies are part of our story.

Time for Cleanup

In 2000 I asked the EPA to come and investigate her house. They got really interested when they learned that a film was coming to Sundance about this topic. They did investigate the house one week before our premier at Sundance, but they did not want to release the results. I used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain their findings.

The tests showed extremely high levels of radiation inside the traditional Navajo house. This radiation came from the floor which was made out of solid slabs of uranium. The walls of the 8 sided building were constructed of cement mixed with uranium. And yellow, black and green uranium rocks were used to decorate the exterior walls. This was all bad news.

It took more than a year to force the EPA to do something about it. I kept calling and asking for a response. In 2001, the EPA returned to Monument Valley to demolish and remove the structure. We filmed this for an Epilogue that we hoped to produce.

I was also pestering the Department of Justice in Washington, DC. I wanted to know what happened to the case of an ailing former uranium miner who also appears in our film, Bernie Cly. He’s Elsie’s brother. He was also shown in Kennedy’s film as a small boy riding a donkey and getting bucked to the ground. A representative from the Department of Justice asked me who would see my film. He seemed impressed by the Sundance selection. I told him it would air on PBS. He asked me if it was local PBS or national. I told him it was slated for national broadcast. Two weeks before the broadcast premier he sent me a letter to confirm that Bernie Cly’s claim had been approved. Bernie would receive a $100,000 compensation check from the Department of Justice in accordance with the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

I was shocked that they were communicating with me, but delighted that I could play a small role in the movement for justice.

The Ripple Effect

As a result of the film’s modest popularity and my frequent pestering of the EPA, a ripple effect began. We call it a groundswell. In addition to the family reunion, and house removal, and compensation check to Bernie, media interest in the story kept increasing. I contacted many newspapers and radio stations. And every time a college or film festival asked for the film I asked them in turn to provide a speaker fee and an all expenses paid trip for Elsie Mae Begay. She has traveled to Chicago, New York, the Sundance Film Festival, Washington, DC and England.

The media became more interested. I helped reporters get in touch with Navajos in our film. Elsie did not have a phone, or running water in her home, but she never missed an appointment. Her story appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune and in a major Associated Press story. Eventually a four-part investigative series appeared in 2006 on the front page of the LA Times. The lead featured Elsie Mae Begay and the uranium house. It opened many eyes. The media itself raised awareness about about cold war uranium contamination in the Navajo Nation. We had provided a window and now the LA Times featured front page pictures of Elsie Mae and her family. What happened next surprised us.

Henry Waxman (Dem-California), the powerful chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee ordered an emergency hearing in Congress. He asked the Navajo tribal leaders to come to Capitol Hill. He ordered the heads of five departments of the federal government to attend. These departments would be excoriated for legacies of the nuclear age: the EPA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service. He called this situation “a forty year history of bipartisan failure, and a modern American tragedy.”

Navajo Nation went on to use our film and its new Epilogue in a campaign to win a congressional mandate for the clean up of cold war uranium contamination. The clean up has begun. The five departments named above are learning how to work together. And how to work with Navajo Nation. This is coordinated by the EPA. Progress is slow. Steep learning curves come with this territory.

Their first priority is to address the radioactive structures which appear in many communities where there are abandoned mines. The tribe now estimates as many as 500 such structures. Elsie’s uranium house turned out to be the symbol for a widespread problem.

There are more than 1,000 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo reservation. This story will go on. We have showed the film in Monument Valley and in the capitol of the Navajo Nation, Window Rock, Arizona. Our film and the Epilogue feature powerful Navajo voices. For example Perry Charley, the head of the Environmental Institute at the tribal college, goes to Elsie’s house to explain the environmental hazards to her. He brings all the radiation detection instruments and they screech at an ear piercing level.

Years earlier, Perry was in charge of the remediation of abandoned mines and mills in Navajo lands. He is a recognized expert and leader in this field. And he is a teacher now.

The Present Day

Cancers and birth defects are part of the legacy in Cove. It is just one of the many Navajo communities that have been impacted by abandoned uranium mines. Most of the places still seem out of sight and out of mind. They are just small communities. I’ve visited many remote places where there are homes, livestock, trading posts, gas stations, dirt bikes, basketball hoops, jewelry stands, schools, and lots of students. Navajos live in remote areas. Not all the areas are contaminated. But the winds blow contaminated topsoil around and it also impacts groundwater so it spreads. Especially when it rains.

The Indian Health Service plans to reach out to many communities with a special mobile health program. Their new mobile health program is called, Community Uranium Exposure: Journey to Health.

I am an educator now, teaching documentary in the film department of Columbia College Chicago. I teach a course called Documentary and Social Change. I am still trying to put these two together in the real world. Media is part of the solution.

My wife, Jennifer, a marketing consultant, helped create a non-profit organization called Groundswell Educational Films. We are co-founders. Groundswell promotes media art and activism and partners with larger organizations to create public events that bring audiences together across all the boundaries that divide.

Groundswell is launching a new internship at the Navajo tribal college. We are responding to Navajo educator, Perry Charley, who want his environmental science students to have a meaningful role in the next chapter of the Navajo Boy saga. A new generation will have to begin telling this story. More importantly, they will have to learn how to pressure the responsible parties to do the right thing. That won’t be easy. Nobody wants radioactive waste in their backyard.

So where will the government of the United States put it? Who will decide? The tribe finds it difficult to convey the enormity of this problem. Most Americans are blissfully unaware of the hidden cost of their nuclear power.

Film and media tools can be part of the solution. We are working with the tribal college and reaching out to others.

Since we met in 1997, Elsie has traveled to many schools and colleges. In some cases she has even hitch-hiked when there was no travel budget available. Elsie has taught me that a picture may be worth a thousand words, but one living witness is worth more than any picture. Together we are witnesses to history. And we are witnesses to the possibilities for documentary and social change.

If you would like to learn more or participate in the groundswell contact our team at

Order our award-winning film, The Return of Navajo Boy on DVD today!

One Response to “From an Old Movie to a New Media Campaign”

  1. My husband and I met John Wayne Cly during the Hayman fire in Colorado in 2002.He was the bus driver for the Zuni Hot Shot Crew that were deployed up here from Gallup.They spent 2 days on Devils Head with us.He told us his story,a very nice man.Such a sad story.

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