The Return Of Navajo Boy
“The Return of Navajo Boy,” a 2000 documentary produced by Jeff Spitz and Bennie Klain, begins with the appearance of a 1950s film reel which, after 40 years, led to the return of a long lost brother to his Navajo family.
The Cly family has lived more than six decades in Monument Valley, Utah, and has an extraordinary history in pictures.
Since the1930s, family members have appeared as unidentified subjects in countless photographs and films shot in Monument Valley, including postcards, Hollywood Westerns such as John Wayne's “The Searchers,” and a rare home-movie by legendary director John Ford.
In 1997 a white man identifying himself as Bill Kennedy from Chicago showed up in Monument Valley with a silent film called “Navajo Boy,” which his late father produced in the 1950s. Seeking to understand his father's work on the Navajo Reservation, Kennedy returned the film to the people in it.
When Cly family matriarch, Elsie Mae Cly Begay, watched the film, she was amused to see herself as a young girl and delighted in identifying other family members: her late mother Happy Cly and infant brother, John Wayne Cly, who was adopted by white missionaries in the 1950s and never heard from again.
With the return of “Navajo Boy,” Elsie seized the opportunity to tell her family's story. Amid a variety of still photos and moving images from the '40s and '50s, the film's producers allow the family to tell their story in their own voices, shedding
light on the Native side of picture making and uranium mining in Monument Valley.
When John Wayne Cly, who was married and living in Zuni, learned about the return of “Navajo Boy” from a story in the Gallup Independent, he contacted the Clys in hopes that they were his family. “The Return of Navajo Boy” documents John Wayne's unforgettable return to his blood brothers and sisters in an emotional reunion in Monument Valley.
Narrated by Elsie's son Lorenzo Begay, “The Return of Navajo Boy” was the official Sundance Film Festival 2000 selection.
'Navajo Boy' Returns
Uranium undercurrent surfaces in 'The Return of Navajo Boy' epilogue
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK – Producers of the 2000 documentary, “The Return of Navajo Boy,” were back on the Navajo Reservation Tuesday to showcase an epilogue to the acclaimed film before Navajo Environmental Protection Agency staff.
Jeff Spitz of Chicago and Bennie Klain, a member of the Navajo Nation, presented a screening of the 57 minute film and a rough cut of the new 15 minute epilogue featuring the Cly family of Monument Valley, Utah.
The group is headed to Shiprock today for a 10 a.m. screening at Shiprock Chapter House.
Elsie Mae Cly Begay, an elder and central figure in the film, hitchhiked Monday along with her cousin Rose Tyler from Tyler's home in Cross Canyon to Window Rock to attend Tuesday's screening.
“She's never missed a plane, never missed a connection for an airport, never been late for an appointment in eight years traveling all over the country,” Spitz said. Last year, he was told that Begay had a ride from Monument Valley to a screening in Flagstaff. When she arrived, she remarked, “Four rides.”
The film has traveled all over the country since its premiere, airing on television networks in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and other places. “Those screenings attract a lot of interested people who want to hear the story about 'The Return of Navajo Boy,'” Spitz said.
“The epilogue is for the purpose of screening and speaking engagements that Elsie does at colleges and museums and at cultural events around the country. We want to provide a short little film that says here's what happened after 'The Return of Navajo Boy.'
“They don't necessarily know that there's a uranium issue sort of surfacing through the film.”
In 1978 following her divorce, Begay and her children moved into a hogan in Monument Valley where they lived for about three years. During filming of the documentary, Spitz became concerned about potential health hazards associated with the hogan, which was made of highly radioactive material.
Fortunately, Begay was living in a house about 30 feet away by the time U.S. EPA tested the hogan for radiation in January 2000. Nine months later she received a letter from EPA stating that radiation levels in the hogan far exceeded EPA cleanup levels.
“Our current policy is to clean up sites to approximately 2 microrem per hour (uR/hr) above background radiation levels, which are estimated to range from 8 to 12 uR/hr in your area. ... The levels that we measured in the stone-floor hogan near your home ranged from 800 to 1,000 uR/hr.
“Given that, we recommend that people stay out of that hogan. We also recommend that the hogan be removed from the area so that no one is exposed to those levels of radiation,” EPA wrote.
Begay consulted Doug Brugge, Ph.D, M.S., who advised her that living in the hogan “would result in an exposure that is about 44 times larger than is considered acceptable” by EPA or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
According to the information she provided him, children played on the floor and occupants slept either on mattresses directly on the floor or on carpets.
“All these scenarios mean that heads, bodies and, reproductive organs, rested for lengthy periods directly on the source of radiation,” he said.
In the epilogue, Begay states that one son, Lewis, “had trouble with his brain. That's what took him.” Another son died of lung cancer.
In 2001, the radioactive hogan was demolished; however, radioactive waste piles located nearby have not been cleaned up to this day, according to Spitz.
“If they couldn't remove all of the contaminated soil from around there, they could have at least put up a sign and a fence to keep the little kids from running around in there. They didn't put up a fence or a sign. They just left everything out and never bothered to come back.”
Begay is speaking out in hope that cleanup will continue not only at her home, but at others across the Navajo Nation.
“I just want that uranium that's out there removed – even the cable that's been there I don't know how many years now. That's the only thing I want, is just remove all the waste – the cable too.
“I live there and my kids was living there and my aunt and her kids too, and grandkids. I have grandkids too. In the winter we tell them not to go there, but they always go there and play over there, even in the snow. They slide there where the waste is,” she said.
Zoe Heller of U.S. EPA viewed Tuesday's screening. “I think their work is fantastic. I think education is what the world really needs and the country needs to address these issues and help make it better,” she said.
The purpose of the epilogue is to empower Begay to tell her story effectively to people engaged in uranium legacy issues, Spitz said.
“We want our film to continue to work as a magnet for audiences and a way of getting people to talk across cultures, because we all share responsibility for our energy and we need to know how much is being paid for that – what the real costs are.
“If people are going to be proposing nuclear for the future, they should also be considering where the uranium is going to come from. And in most cases, all over the world, it comes from underneath the feet of indigenous people.”
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