The Return of Navajo Boy

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Published: March 6, 2010
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Attached are two flyers from the US Environmental Protection Agency. The first from 1997, the second from June, 2009. After you read this story you will understand their significance.

These documents help explain how I learned that the United States government had serious concerns about uranium contamination in monument valley. And what I did as a filmmaker upon entering the Navajo Nation in search of people whose images appeared in an old film.

I first visited the area with old photos from a film called Navaho Boy: The Monument Valley Story in May, 1997.

Monument Valley HS principal, Pat Seltzer, greeted me when I first came to Monument Valley with old pictures of Navajos from the area. Everyone heard about the guy with old pictures. News travels fast. I met her at a pow wow at the high school on my first night in monument valley. There is nothing to do at night so I went to observe my first pow wow and one of the kids pulled me by the hand to come up and dance on the stage. I loved it. Principal Seltzer came up to introduce herself to me. She was delighted that I went on the stage and participated. She asked me where I was from and what I was doing. I told her about my pictures from an old movie.

One of my pictures showed a little boy sitting on a sandpainting in a healing ceremony. It was from the 1950s. Pat said his name was Richard Blackwater. Pat was amazed to see Richard as a child. He was the high school’s old custodian. And Richard appreciated seeing the old picture of himself. He laughed and started to share memories. Later Pat informed me about other visitors in the area. She said that the EPA brought a helicopter and landed it on their football field.

She said they wanted to teach her students and community about science and discuss what they were going to do with the helicopter. The EPA insisted that uranium is not dangerous if you understand it, so they wanted to teach students how to understand it and not fear it. Knowledge is power they said.

Of course that was before they did the aerial radiological survey of the area. They were looking for hot spots associated with abandoned uranium mines. After the survey in 1997, the EPA did not come back with results. I forced them to give me the results for our film in 1999 about a month before the Sundance Film Festival premier. Why did I care? Everyone I talked to mentioned uranium mining when I asked about life in Monument Valley. They also mentioned illnesses. And giving up on Navajo ceremonies after cancer and pollution entered their community. They cared. The cared so much that they wrote a clause into my release form for their images. That’s right, a clause to ensure that I reported about uranium impacts. They wanted to have that in writing from me. And that is why they signed the releases.

So eventually I had to circle back to the EPA and ask about the aerial surveys. They did not want to release information to me. I asked a reporter from the Chicago Reader, Mike Sula, to follow up since he was already writing a feature story about the film in progress. He got a map from the EPA in December, 1999 via FedEx. I think he had the right press credentials (and leverage from a big city publication). It worked. I got on a plane and brought the EPA’s findings back to the community. I felt strange playing this role. It was no longer about making a film. I was trying to make a difference in a place where my government had failed. Where I knew people needed information, not just a film.

We could all see purple pin points on the map that represented radiological hazards associated with abandoned mines. I showed the map to Pat Seltzer. She showed it to her science teachers and the Navajo staff. There were many small purple pin points and one comparatively large purple splotch. I realized that this big purple splotch was Elsie’s homesite. And I didn’t know what to do about it. It was shocking to see how bad it was compared to the other areas. I had to ask the EPA for help understanding the map. It was not self-explanatory. This same map included several water sources that were identified in terms of their risk levels for cancer. I could see that Lorenzo Begay (our film’s narrator) had a livestock well that was in the highest risk category. He lived near his mom, Elsie. Everyone was concerned about the water.

In 2001 the EPA returned as a result of our film and my persistent requests on behalf of Elsie and her family. Everybody at the EPA wanted to do the right thing, but all that could be done at the time was a simple demolition and removal of one uranium house. They said that they could act unilaterally in the Navajo Nation, but that it was not how things were supposed to be done. The tribe had to be involved. Well, I can tell you the tribe was mad about this. They were in no position to raise alarm about radiological hazards, because they had no real means to deal with it. They had only been given token amounts of money to seal up abandoned mines with cinder blocks and put cement caps over hazardous tailings piles all over the reservation. That was it. One of the people who did that job contacted me. His name was Perry Charley. Perry has helped me understand a lot of things. He is a former uranium miner and he is now an educator. But now I’m jumping ahead. I’m out of chronological order. Monument Valley time is geologic, so sometimes I start thinking differently when I reflect on things. Let me slow down and circle back.

After I got the aerial survey map in December, 1999 I insisted that the EPA come and investigate Elsie’s uranium house on behalf of her and her family. We had filmed Elsie’s claim that this old fashioned hogan was made out of uranium and even placed that scene in our film. I was worried that this claim was not true. That it was like an old family myth. Like how her son’s name was supposedly John Wayne. But if you’ve seen our film, you know how that family myth turned out to be true. So I persisted because this family did not tell me any lies. Their lives were riddled with cross cultural influences that seemed too strange and cruel to be true. Elsie wanted me to follow up on her behalf because white people listened to me. She wanted to have the house investigated. I pushed on the EPA very hard. I told them this film would get a lot of attention and that it would go on national television. Elsie and I worked together to get results.

We had no reason to believe that the EPA would actually do anything. They had stalled after producing the map. It took a reporter from Chicago and a filmmaker to budge them. But to their credit the EPA sent an investigator, Glynn Alsup from the US Army Corps of Engineers. Glynn was deeply moved by what he found. He even contacted me about it.

On January 12 and 13th, 2000, Alsup investigated Elsie’s house and filmed his investigation. He told Elsie that the levels in and around the house were very high. He told her to stay away from it and keep the kids away. Nobody was living in it at the time, but in the late 70s after Elise’s divorce she had moved in with all of her kids.

In the spring of 2000 after using the Freedom of Information Act, we obtained Alsup’s footage from the investigation. The results were alarming. Alsup found the highest radiation levels ever recorded in a family house. It would take more than a year for the EPA to come back and demolish this house. In fact they would not send a report to Elsie explaining their findings and recommendations until 9 months after their site visit. And they only sent that letter because of our persistent advocacy. I kept asking for up to date information for the film which I mentioned would be airing on national television (PBS) in November, 2000. But that wasn’t enough. It took one more team member, an environmental attorney, Tim French, who saw our film and offered to help put pressure on the EPA.

I could not believe this was happening. It had all started with some old pictures from a long forgotten film, a film that Bill Kennedy had saved as a personal memento of his father, Robert Kennedy who had passed away in 1984. By the spring of 2000 I had been involved with this unfolding project for three years and was wondering when it would end. And also seriously wondering what my role should be in such a situation. What was my responsibility here? What was the point of doing a film about returning an old movie to the people who were in it? Does anyone care about them? Would anybody care about the film? How would I find money to pay for this? What was this obsession doing to me and my family?

The Sundance Film Festival premier on January 19th, 2000 answered some of those questions for me. Not all of them. We had made a beautiful work of art and launched a kind of activism from the bottom up. Incredibly, this groundswell is still unfolding a decade later. There are more questions. I am a teacher now. I also work with my wife in a not-for-profit organization that combines documentary art with activism to bring diverse audiences together for justice.

So ten years later after numerous EPA visits, newspaper reports and investigations in Elsie’s backyard including one that we filmed with Perry Charley in 2008, there is still no actual work being done to remove hazards in her backyard area such as those old rusty mining cables seen in our epiloge. Furthermore there is no fence or sign posted to prevent kids from wandering in to the hazardous area. Elsie has asked for a fence. The EPA’s own Andrew Sowder pointed out the need for a fence and warning signs in 2001 when he investigated the site and observed the demolition of the uranium house.

The purple splotch on that initial map is the result of huge piles of old uranium ore dumped over the side of the mesa and left there for decades. The piles look like sand dunes. In fact, the ore is actually mixed up with the sand dunes. Some of this is just natural erosion and some of it is uranium ore. It’s a lethal mix. And it is not stable. Wind, rain, snow, all move the hazardous legacy around the area. There is no place for Navajos to go. And they did not make this mess. They just want it cleaned up.

One well documented hazard is the old staging area where trucks used to pull up and receive tons of ore from trolleys lowered on cables down from the mine. In 2009 the EPA finally investigated all these areas under the auspices of the new 5 year plan mandated by Congress. They have placed this whole area on the priority list for the 5 year comprehensive clean up plan. That plan is the result of Congressman Henry Waxman reading about Elsie’s family in the LA Times report, Blighted Homeland, by Judy Pasternak. She called me in 2004 and asked about the film. She wanted to investigate Elsie’s situation. Her report reveals the larger environmental tragedy impacting countless Navajos in many communities all across the reservation. Waxman read the report and called congressional hearings on the matter. This stunned the Navajo Nation. Congress mandated five federal departments address a 40 year history of bi-partisan failure. Waxman called it “a modern American tragedy.”

Groundswell received a grant from the Bradshaw-Knight Foundation in 2008 to film an epilogue and premier it on Capitol Hill in partnership with the Navajo Nation. We did that. And in that room to present the film was Elsie Mae Begay. She spent more than an hour after the screening discussing the situation with representatives of Congress, Navajo Nation, the EPA and other concerned citizens. Aaron Spitz, my 14 year old son not only attended this discussion, he filmed it. So the work continues to unfold.

See the 5 year plan attached. You will see Elsie’s uranium house and the bigger picture. The five year plan is more likely to be a 50 year plan. They have capable people already. The EPA, The Department of Energy, Indian Health Service, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Bureau of Indian Affairs are all responsible for the clean up and restoration of Navajo lands and lives. Education and training in Navajo schools is needed now more than ever. Perry Charley and I are working together to develop a new program involving the arts. This has become a groundswell.

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

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