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Shiprock students capture cultural history on film

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SHIPROCK, N.M. - Eight Northwest High School students recently completed a three-week-long filmmaking course, which took place July 7 - 25. Under the supervision of accomplished Santa Fe-based filmmakers Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller, best known for their films featuring American Indian themes (;'Homelands,'' ''Rocks with Wings,'' ''Salt Song Trail,'' ''Circle of Stories''), the students, ages 12 - 17, filmed and produced four short digital stories, including the legend of Shiprock.

This course, Phase I of the three-phase Four Corners Media Project, was offered for credit through Santa Fe Community College. It provided Navajo students with an opportunity to learn how to use digital video camera, sound, and lighting techniques, as well as the finer points of post-production (film editing). Students traveled to Santa Fe for the first week to learn how to use the cameras and sound equipment. During the second week, they returned to Shiprock, where they interviewed elders and filmed local scenery. In the final week, they returned to Santa Fe for post-production work.

Northwest High School students Zachary Tsosie and ShiDara Kee were quite enthusiastic about the project.

Zachary said, ''When we interviewed my uncle, I learned a lot about the background of the Navajo people. I [also] learned how to operate a camera, a boom, and how to edit [the film]. What I liked the best was ... traveling all over the place - Santa Fe, the dorms [at IAIA], Cove ... I would tell my friends that they should go for it [this project], especially since you get six high school or college credits [for the course].''

ShiDara, who considers herself a ''behind-the-scenes sort of person,'' enjoyed editing the film clips. Although she prefers not being an interviewer, she is deeply committed to preserving the Dine' language and culture, and is teaching the language to her younger siblings. ''I would strongly recommend this program, because it's been really fun, and it would be a great [thing] just to have in your life. I want to continue working on the digital stories we've made.'' When offered the chance to join the group for Phase II next summer, she added, ''I'd be the first one on!''

Chaperoned by Shiprock Associated Schools Inc. arts and science teachers Chris Schramm and Ann McGinley, students stayed at the Institute of American Indian Arts while in Santa Fe. Schramm and McGinley intend to continue their work with these and other students, and they are looking forward to Phase II of the project, scheduled to take place during late spring and early summer of 2009.

McGinley, sharing her view of the project, stated, ''This project has renewed my admiration for Navajo students and their ability to sense nature and emotions. My students are awesome, talented, and great people. They experience the world on many different levels. As a teacher, I hope I will get the opportunity to build upon these strengths and make our school a better place for learning.''

Shramm noted, ''I believe that the Four Corners Media Project allows the participating students an opportunity to see their culture in a whole new light. I think that they will have a deeper understanding and appreciation of their Dine' culture and tradition.''

The filmmaking course is part of a research project co-sponsored by New Mexico and California nonprofit Orenda Healing International and the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, Calif. The project combines storytelling and filmmaking in order to reconnect Navajo adolescents with their elders, for the dual purpose of validating the wisdom and life experience of the elders while emphasizing the value of Navajo culture for the young people.

Pennie Opal Plant, owner of Gathering Tribes in Berkeley, Calif., introduced project director and OHI Founding and Executive Director Valentine McKay-Riddell to James Perry, Navajo cultural consultant from Shiprock. While McKay-Riddell sought seed funding for the project, Perry initiated contacts with the Shiprock community and introduced McKay-Riddell to Schramm, McGinley, and SASI Director Melissa Culler. SASI provided vehicles for bringing the students to Santa Fe and for driving them around the Four Corners area during the week of filming, as well as money for their lunches and incidentals during the three weeks of the project.

McKay-Riddell believes that the power of such a project lies in its ability to unite diverse peoples, communities and institutions. When asked about the importance of capturing the Navajo traditions on film, McKay-Riddell said, ''I wanted to support the Dine' people, which was the original reason for planning such a project. But it was James' idea to make a movie. And he was absolutely right. Film is the most powerful medium available to the public now, and it provides a natural outlet for the creativity of youth.

''As a predominately oral language that is difficult to learn, the Navajo language is at serious risk of being lost. Within the language lies the key to Navajo spirituality - the Beauty Way. I sincerely believe that the language and culture, the spiritual practices of the Navajo people, hold the key to sustainable living, which we all need.''

Amazed at the harmony that earmarked such a complex project, McKay-Riddell praised the efforts of all the participants. ''In three short weeks, people from all walks of life, people who didn't know one another at all, came together and united as a functional team to produce something of relevance for others. Not only that: they went away liking each other. This suggests that there's hope for a peaceful planet.''