Navajo Talking Picture: Cinema on Native Ground

By Randolph Lewis | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
A Brief History of Celluloid Navajos

“There are thousands of pictures of us, but we never
got to say anything.”

ELSIE MAY CLY BEGAY, The Return of Navajo Boy

In a small place called Tuba City, Arizona, on the western span of the Navajo reservation, the actor and producer Robert Redford arrived in the early 1990s with a Tony Hillerman mystery in hand. His choice of reading material was not surprising. Like millions of Americans, Redford was attracted to the savvy Navajo policemen, dusty reservation settings, and exotic cultural insights that readers had come to expect from the Oklahoma-born author. With an uncanny ear for cultural cliché, Newsweek claimed that Hillerman’s books were “woven as tightly as a Navajo blanket,” an assessment that the vast readership of his eighteen Navajo mysteries seemed to share.1 In the past thirty years, these mass-market paperbacks have been a staple of airport bookstores across the United States, with his novel The Dark Wind (1982) proving no exception.

Like most of Hillerman’s novels, The Dark Wind was packaged as more than another entry in the ever-popular mystery genre: it was also hailed as an anthropological occasion, an exciting look at genuine Navajo culture, with enthusiastic blurbs about its authenticity from major newspapers splashed across the cover and front matter. The San Diego Union-Tribune hailed it as an “insightful portrayal of the vast Navajo Reservation” and “the spirit-haunted people who inhabit it,” while the Denver Post claimed that it was “one of the most satisfying and enlightening ways to experience the culture of this vast, inscrutable region.”2 In view of Redford’s later involvement with Native media at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, his interest in bringing Hillerman’s novel to

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Navajo Talking Picture: Cinema on Native Ground
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Indicenous Films ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations viii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Series Editor’s Introduction xiii
  • Introduction xvii
  • Chapter One- A Brief History of Celluloid Navajos 1
  • Chapter Two- Navajo Filmmaker 49
  • Chapter Three- Reaction 72
  • Chapter Four- Intent 88
  • Chapter Five- Ethics 105
  • Chapter Six- Native Ground 124
  • Chapter Seven- Final Thoughts 161
  • Navajo Talking Picture Production and Distribution Information 175
  • Notes 177
  • Further Reading 209
  • Index 211
  • In the Indicenous Films Series 216
  • Other Works by Randolph Lewis 217
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