Heartbreak & Resiliency in Navajoland

Generous donor support and a last minute grant from a wonderful family foundation made it possible for Director of Photography Samuel (Sam) Goodman, Sound Recordist Saul Rodger, and I to resume filming on the Navajo Reservation in July. It was exciting to meet so many of our production goals for the shoot, and troubling to witness the devastating affects of coal and uranium mining everywhere we traveled. Filming took place at four locations: Navajo Nation Tribal Council in Window Rock, Arizona; the monthly Crownpoint Rug Auction held in the elementary school gymnasium; the Harvey/Tsosie home in Cortez, Colorado; and Borrego Pass, home of the extended House/Day/Tolth family.

In Window Rock our small crew witnessed residents of Black Mesa deliver their concerns about the activities of Peabody Coal Company and the ensuing water crisis, to the steps of the Tribal Council. The advocates, who included elders and children, traveled more than 150 miles on horseback over a 5-day period to draw attention to their cause. We filmed the riders arriving from their long journey and recorded activists Wahleah Johns and Nicole Horseherder as they led an emotional press conference articulating the plight of thousands of Navajo and Hopi living on and near Black Mesa. The streams, rivers, and natural springs that once provided ample water for their families and farms have now completely dried up, and dozens of public wells have failed, leaving them without water.

These women and fellow Black Mesa residents, who followed them to the podium, told of spending hours driving long distances to haul water in their trucks for drinking and bathing, for their livestock. Now, for the first time in their collective ancestral memories, they must haul water for their crops too. Hauling water daily exhausts them. They mourn the loss of productivity and they fear their children will be left with the terrible legacy of hauling water. We're anxious to get up to Black Mesa this fall to begin filming weaver Elvira Horseherder and her mother, elder Ruth Benally, to witness firsthand the crisis there.

Weaver Sarah White, who is featured in our trailer, has now taken a leadership role at DinéCARE. She led a successful rally in Shiprock opposing the Desert Rock Power Plant. The proposed plant will only add to the toxic mix of carcinogens in the air that drifts out of three existing coal plants on the Reservation that are among the dirtiest in the country. Sarah, who suffers from chronic asthma, brought a contingent of supporters, and was also joined by her son Che and daughter Victoria. Strong-willed and angry, these young people have developed their own unique voices around the many injustices facing Native Americans today.

The reputation of prominent Shiprock resident, Phil Harrison, precedes him. Son of a deceased uranium miner, Phil has dedicated his adult life to helping Navajo mining victims and their survivors in obtaining compensation from the Federal Government through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). We have Phil to thank for introducing us to the Harvey family of Sweetwater, Arizona, now living in Cortez, Colorado. Phil has been assisting the Harveys with the mountain of legal and medical forms that needed to be filed for their RECA claim.

Mr. Harvey worked in the uranium mines for more than a decade. His family maintained a ranch raising horses, cattle, and sheep. His story is identical to that of thousands of other uranium miners. He was given no warning from the uranium company or the US government about the deadly consequences of inhaling uranium dust from the mines. With no safety measures in place to protect the miners from these deadly substances, he experienced a vast overexposure. As a result, he has suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. It was into his wife, Jessica Harvey’s hands that clothing worn in the mines was laid for washing. Jessica, a well-known weaver, succumbed to the effects of uranium exposure too and now suffers from Parkinson's disease traceable to her husband’s work in the mines.

Daughter Anita Tsosie grew up at the base of her mother and her aunt’s looms. She draws from two worlds; her cultural roots in her Navajo traditions in Sweetwater, and her years pursuing a college degree in business, to become the successful weaver she is today. Her finely woven rugs and blankets are artistic marvels. Sam, Saul, and I are looking forward to resuming our filming with the Harvey family in October. We’ll be camping at the family’s ancestral Hogan in Sweetwater. While her parents are too weak to travel, we will film Anita as she recalls the life her family once enjoyed there. We will also visit the Navajo women who supply Anita with fine yarn from the churro wool of their herds.

On the southern part of the Reservation, the Bush Administration’s push for nuclear power and nuclear weapons has put an emotional as well as financial strain on the battle against two proposed uranium mining projects; one in Crownpoint and one in Church Rock. The grassroots Navajo organizations that have been fighting Goliath, now fear that their meager resources will not be enough to stave off the government-supported mining efforts.

One of our goals for Woven Ways is to educate viewers about the economic crisis hundreds of Navajo weavers will face, not to mention the untold hardship that will be thrust upon all Navajos living within 30 miles of the mines. We spent an entire day filming the activities of the Crownpoint Rug Auction. It was affirming to see such a large group of weavers of all ages and from all over the Reservation, delivering their rugs to the monthly auction. I’m particularly fond of the footage of elder weavers in their velvet shirts and calico skirts. The cacophony of color, texture, and design manifests itself beautifully on film. When the auction began the action was fast and the bidding was sometimes furious. Hundreds of rugs sold that night, bringing much-needed income into the households of weavers.

We’ll eventually edit the auction footage together with film we shot last fall of Mitchell Capitan, founding director of the Navajo group opposing uranium in Crownpoint. Mitchell attended the Indigenous People’s Conference at the United Nations to give testimony about environmental injustices being committed against his people. There he explained the reports by expert geologists that concluded that within 7 years of the mines’ construction, the aquifer that provides water to 15,000 Navajo will be contaminated permanently and irrevocably, relegating Crownpoint to a ghost town.

We traveled to this part of the Reservation hoping we would find another family to feature in Woven Ways, to further illustrate what will be lost if mining forces the abandonment of Crownpoint. What we did not expect to find was a family of beautiful, strong Navajo girls who were learning to become weavers in the traditional way. Saul wandered out to the parking lot for lemonade and found the stand staffed by the House girls; Tanisha (17), Alisha (13), and Felisha (11). Their mother Bernice, grandmother Dorothy, Uncles Ray and Robert, Aunt Marilyn, and other family members are taking great care to pass on every facet of the weaving tradition to the girls so that one day, they will be able to support themselves in an economy with high unemployment and few opportunities. The girls sell lemonade in the parking lot today, but dream about bringing their own rugs inside the Auction to sell one day soon. The Crownpoint Rug Auction is the only Navajo owned and operated monthly venue that gives weavers a chance to sell their rugs without a middleman or trader. For the House girls to realize their dream, Crownpoint must be kept safe from the dangers of deadly uranium mining.

Our very last day on the Navajo Reservation was spent filming the girls tackling their non-stop chores and activities. Picture this: it is a blistering 97° outside and Tanisha, Alisha, Felisha, and cousin, Nicole, are reviewing their “to-do list” for the day. First item up, they must catch the only 2 sheep in the herd that have yet to be sheared. Separating these two, one a mother of rare triplets, seems impossible and yet, Alisha confidently readies the lasso, chases a large group into the barn, and emerges a mere two seconds later with Mary (you may need to see the footage to believe it!) With identical ease, the other fleeced sheep is caught and both are brought over to a large, blue tarp set out on the ground by the corral. The girls and Uncle Robert (Hopi/Pueblo) proceeded to hand-shear the sheep, making remarkably quick work of it. Felisha, the youngest, who isn’t much for handling the scissors, prefers the task of keeping Mary calm with her tender stroking. The girls rush from one task to another, like fillies at play. (They all ran so fast that it made filming them in transit from one place to another, difficult. At one point I suggested that Sam was simply too old to keep up with them, so they should all slow down for him.)

After a quick break for iced tea, the girls set about washing two of the dozen or so fleeces that were drying on racks in the sun outside of the family Hogan. Robert was an excellent teacher, but the four girls only needed minor suggestions on how to handle the fleece. They worked with precision and moved on to carding some cleaned wool under the watchful eye of Grandmother Dorothy. We have begun making plans for our return trip in October to film the girls as they put up their looms and begin their very first weaving projects. (Learn how you can support the House/Day Daughters Scholarship Fund.)

I believe strongly that the grave injustices that threaten the future of the Navajo need to be brought to the attention of the American people. Helping the Navajo fight these injustices is a responsibility that must be shared by all peace-loving people. Woven Ways seeks to accomplish this by making a film that speaks to the deep spirituality, intense beauty, and profound generosity of the Navajo. By their example, we can learn the lessons of oneness.

With warmest regards,

The Film
Your Support

Linda Helm Krapf
Woven Ways
PO Box 46
Sergeantsville, NJ 08557

Woven Ways © 2005