Nov 16th 2019

The Return of Navajo Boy + Panel: 20 years later, The Story and Impact

Panel with filmmaker and Navajo participants John Wayne Cly and Elsie Mae Begay

The Sundance Film Festival & PBS documentary unlocks the mystery of a silent 1950s docudrama called Navajo Boy and exposes an environmental crisis in the Navajo Nation. When Chicagoan Bill Kennedy, the son of the late producer of “Navajo Boy,” shows the vintage 16mm color film to the original Navajo cast, indigenous voices give new meaning to old images.

Told entirely from the Navajo point of view, the voices reveal a hidden history of the American West involving Hollywood, tourism, uranium mining and a long-lost little boy. When original cast member Elsie Mae Begay, a grandmother, sees her youthful smile on screen, she chuckles. Moments later she recognizes her late mother holding her baby brother. He was two years old when he was adopted by white missionaries. She says his name was John Wayne Cly. Elsie and her family reclaim and repurpose an astonishing array of pictures including postcards, behind-the-scenes footage from John Ford’s The Searchers and a propaganda film by uranium mining company, Kerr-McGee. An abandoned uranium mine stains the red rock cliffs by her home. Deadly illnesses haunt the area. When a Navajo man reads a newspaper story about the return of Navajo Boy he contacts the reporter. John Wayne Cly’s journey to Monument Valley sheds light on a Native American family’s extraordinary struggle for justice.

Directed by Jeff Spitz, 2000, with Epilogue (2008), USA 72 mins.

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