The United States has left the Navajo Nation with a toxic legacy of uranium contamination, and programs to compensate uranium miners for past harms are sunsetting. As the expiration date of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act approaches, we interviewed filmmaker Jeff Spitz about filmmaking for impact and change.
Jeff Spitz released his documentary film, The Return of Navajo Boy, in 2000. The Return of Navajo Boy is a double entendre. On one level it’s about a 1950s film called Navajo Boy being returned to the people who appeared in it. This film makes its full-circle journey back to Monument Valley, Utah, and into the lives of people who never expected to see it. On another level, it’s about reuniting a family with a long-lost baby boy. The 1950s film, Navajo Boy, shows a baby in his mother's arms. When watching this film, family members comment that the baby was taken away by white missionaries and never seen again. The Return of Navajo Boy documents the incredible reunion with a relative that had been taken away from them decades earlier. In following this family’s story, the film also documents the impact uranium mining had on the family and the whole of the Navajo Nation.
Andy Adams: Your film starts by looking back at an old 1950s film, Navajo Boy. In the opening scene, you have Bill Kennedy, the son of the filmmaker that made Navajo Boy, coming into a family’s home and showing them pictures that his father made of them. And my first question was, how did you find this old film?
Jeff Spitz: I got a package in the mail from Bill Kennedy with a VHS tape in it. He knew my father-in-law. The title, Navajo Boy, was written in pencil on the spine of the tape. I put it in the VCR and watched it. There was a grandmother who was bare-chested and a medicine man performing a healing ritual, and they filmed that. It seemed awkward and charming at the same time, but also really intrusive. And, there are problems with this idea that you just go and film native people in this way. At other points in that film, there's a young girl who looks at the camera and laughs. I wondered, “what’s she thinking?” I would love to know what she would say if she could see this again. So, Bill Kennedy and I met, and I asked him what he wanted to do with this film. He said, “I'd like to give it back somehow.” And, I said, “well, what else do you want to do with it? Because you don't need a filmmaker to give a film back.” And he said, “Well, I think maybe it can be brought alive again in the 90s. Maybe there's some good history here that could be useful to people there.”
I went to Monument Valley and found the young girl that had laughed at the camera. She was now a grandmother named Elsie Mae Begay, and Elsie said, “Bring back the movie, bring the man, and bring the camera.”
AA: Talk about how the story evolves for you as you're in the process of making the movie.
JS: In 1997 on the very first visit I saw a white stain on the Red Rock cliff behind Elsie’s home. And, I was standing there with Elsie and her son in their backyard. I asked, “What is that?” They said, “uranium,” and I realized right then and there this is a bigger story than just giving a film back. So, for me, the realization that there was a big underlying problem in Monument Valley, and in particular, in this grandmother's backyard, and even in the house that she had raised her kids in, and in their water supply made it clear to me I had a major investigation that could happen.
I wondered if these people were in danger. And Elsie and her son, Lorenzo, who narrates the film said, “It's probably dangerous. Everyone gets sick.” And Lorenzo said, “My brother Lewis died when he was 24 from a brain tumor.” I realized, this is very big, and there can't be just one uranium mine. It can't be just one family living through this. So, I saw these things within the first few steps of this project and realized that there has to be a different way to bring this story through.
AA: Yours isn’t fly-on-the-wall documentary style, you're actually very clearly collaborating with the people in the film. How did that approach start and how did you push it further beyond the film in terms of real-world activism?
JS: I didn't pick this topic. It picked me. Bill Kennedy handed me a film and said, “Could you help me figure out what to do with this?” So, in terms of figuring out a collaborative approach, it just grew organically from returning an old film to people who were actually in it as children, seeing the response they had to it, and the interest they had in telling what was really going on behind the scenes. Their deciding what to tell and how to say it and what to show and where to take me and what kinds of images might be out there in the world that other people took of them, meant that I was dependent on them. So, you had a real interdependence here.
I brought the camera crew and the tools and the understanding of story structure. But they brought the incident. They brought that perspective. They brought the voice, and they had a reason more than anything else to do all of this and the reason was finding a missing brother, and getting attention for the contamination that they were living around. And you can't take these things and pull them apart, right? So I didn't, I listened. But there was a serious issue here with the Navajo language which I do not speak. Fortunately, a Navajo language radio reporter named Bennie Klain got involved at a critical stage and helped us all craft the distinctly Navajo point of view for this documentary. And, eventually, we had a rough cut to share. And, we brought it back to share. And, it was clear that in this process, we needed to be in the same editing room. So I was able to get Navajo participants the funds to fly to Chicago, and come into the editing room, not to edit the film, to comment, to adjust to make modifications to ensure that the Navajo voice was central, and that it was the driving force, and that their vision for telling their story about themselves would show everybody the difference between their film and the way they were portrayed in other people’s photographs and films.
AA: This little girl in the original film, it turns out that she's grown into an older woman. She becomes a core character, a co-creator, and a collaborator. You released the film, and that little girl ends up becoming an activist, taking the film around the country. Can you tell us about taking the film from the screen to the streets, and some of the outcomes?
JS: Elsie wanted to get answers for the questions that her whole community had and many Navajo grandmothers had. So, we understood from the get-go that our mission wasn't going to end with the premiere of the film. We were able to contact the EPA before the film even premiered. And we got them to agree to come out of the helicopters down to the Hogan level into the house that was made out of uranium and to do an investigation for Elsie. We took their findings to the top Navajo nuclear expert, Perry Charley, who advised Elsie in Navajo and became a key part of this ongoing film project. The EPA found Elsie's house to be the hottest radioactive dwelling that they had ever encountered. We had gotten the EPA to investigate a house made out of uranium. And now we had an obligation to get them to do something about that. That took a year and a half of more ground swelling, more film screenings before the federal government and the tribe allowed for the removal of a house made out of uranium. The U.S. EPA called it an emergency action.
Elsie and I and the others in this family wanted to use this leverage on behalf of everyone who was facing this, it was not the only house made out of uranium, just like it wasn't the only uranium mine and the only grandmother living in these conditions with her family. So, the next step logically was to publicize this film. We got front-page stories in the Chicago Reader and Salt Lake Tribune. We understood we could educate journalists, we could get the front page. Environmental reporters took interest. And that meant that government agencies, who don't want to look bad, responded even faster. The tribal government, activists, and Navajo educators recognized the power of this personal film and supported screenings with Elsie in many Navajo communities and schools.
We got an invitation to go to the Smithsonian. And once we got that invitation, we started to publicize it. We heard from our friends in San Francisco EPA region 9 that their bosses in Washington, DC wanted to know about this film.
We also contacted the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of Bernie Cly, who had a pending compensation case. He was one of those uranium miners who was harmed sufficiently to qualify for the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and his case was gathering dust. His lawyer, Stewart Udall, the former Secretary of the Interior under JFK, told me, “Maybe your film can help. They don't return my phone calls anymore. They know why I'm calling.” I was able to call the Justice Department and ask them for up-to-date and accurate information about Bernie Cly because he was in a film that was going to be aired nationally on PBS. And, a week before the broadcast, they sent a fax to me. It was an approval of Bernie Cly’s case, confirming that he could expect to receive $100,000 from the feds.
In 2004, I got a call from Judy Pasternak, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, who said, “I need to see your documentary. I want to do a story, a real deep story about the Navajos and this uranium situation.” Elsie and her family became a major part of the story. In 2006 they published a four-part investigative series, and Elsie was on that front page. The response to our film activated people everywhere we took it and Elsie was able to travel with it because I would insist that any institution that wanted to show the film, have a budget to travel a Navajo speaker, namely Elsie because the primary purpose of the film was to get answers for Elsie’s questions and to get attention and to amplify her voice in every possible context. So Elsie did become an extremely effective advocate by articulating what was happening in her community, her lived experience. She even presented the film on Capitol Hill.
There's such a long list of impacts that have come out of this project that are tangible. Eventually, we were also able to pressure the EPA to come back and do something about the abandoned mine in Elsie’s backyard and the contaminated soils. In 2011, the EPA did come back. They spent a year and $8 million to clean up the first of over 523 abandoned uranium mines. They asked us to film that.
In our documentary, the epilogue, and the subsequent web series we exposed one major corporate polluter, Kerr-McGee. We incorporated scenes from their official propaganda film made in the 1950s and called A Navajo Journey. I found this film in the national archives. To me, it was the smoking gun. Incredibly, Kerr-McGee’s footage from the 1950s shows the same Navajo children that were in our film, including Elsie Mae Begay and her younger brother Bernie Cly. Kerr-McGee’s voice-of-god-style narrator assured audiences that the Navajo people, including uranium miners and their families, were "looking forward to many brilliant tomorrows.”
In 2014 Kerr-McGee paid out a billion-dollar legal settlement to the Navajo tribe to help clean up 50 abandoned mines.
The last thing is probably the most important. When Bill Kennedy and I brought back an old film, it had the picture of a baby in the mother's arms. Everyone in the family wanted copies of that picture. And when they told us that the baby was taken away by white missionaries and never seen again, and that his name was John Wayne, there was no way I could respond to that. I didn't even know if it was true. But now as you see in the film, The Return of Navajo Boy, there is a reunion, and there is a real return. And that's what made it possible for this film to be an effective tool for addressing uranium contamination all over the Navajo reservation because it's personal. It's a family story. It's about returning to a place where something happened that was wrong. And trying to right that wrong.
Want to learn more about the Navajo experience or become more involved in this ongoing environmental justice campaign? Contact the Uranium Education Program at Dine’ College, led by Navajo nuclear scientist Perry Charley: email@example.com. Or contact Groundswell Educational Films’ Executive Director Jeff Spitz: Jeff@groundswellfilms.org.
Jeff Spitz teaches documentary story, production, screenwriting, service learning, and civic engagement at Columbia College Chicago. He is also Co-Founder of Groundswell Educational Films, a non-profit production & community engagement organization. Spitz is the Director and Co-Producer of the official Sundance Film Festival & PBS selection, The Return of Navajo Boy (2000 & 2008 Epilogue). The film project reunited a Navajo family and triggered a federal investigation into uranium houses on the Navajo Reservation. Raising awareness about hidden legacies of Cold War uranium mining, Spitz continues to amplify the voices of Navajo Nation allies. Since 1985 Spitz has produced hundreds of short advocacy videos for non-profit organizations including The Chicago History Museum, the American Library Association, and the US Conference of Mayors. Jeff produces and co-hosts a free monthly showcase featuring documentary filmmakers called The Doc Talk Show.