After the premiere of the documentaryThe Return of Navajo Boy at this year's Sundance festival, the film's main subject, Elsie Mae Begay, finally began to receive recognition for the hundreds of motion pictures, photographs, paintings, and postcards she and her family, the Clys, appeared in during the 40s and 50s as anonymous Native American icons of the fabled American west. The makings of the film--detailing the Monument Valley family's history, their struggle to learn the full extent of the damage done to their bodies and homes from uranium mining, and the miraculous return of Begay's long-lost brother John Wayne after his "adoption" by white missionaries--was the subject of a Reader cover story last January. Since then, Begay has recovered yet another startling visual record of the ongoing story.
Filmmaker Jeff Spitz says that after Begay filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records of radiation testing done nine months ago on the home she and her children lived in off and on for 17 years, the Environmental Protection Agency failed to forward the video and conventional and digital photographs taken during the survey. A lawyer helped persuade the EPA to turn over the tape (they claimed the photos were lost), and the footage provides an ominous accompaniment to the test results, which revealed radiation levels that "far exceeded EPA cleanup levels," according to the feds.
"It shows her walking around that building pointing to the rock, and the field tester walking around behind her with a Geiger counter," says Spitz. "And then he stands back and shows the whole hogan and his voice is trembling, and he says, 'The measurements we have found here are between 800 and 1,000 microroentgens per hour.' The tone of his voice is chilling. He's either very cold or really disturbed by what he's just found, and I think it's a combination of the two. It's very disturbing to find out somebody's lived in a place like this."
The footage isn't in the final version of The Return of Navajo Boy, but Spitz says something will be done with it. "It's evidence," he says. "It provides more verification, more validation. It's part of the Cly family archive. Maybe one day they'll have their own film festival."
The film will be broadcast on Channel 11 on November 13, but there will be four free public screenings of The Return of Navajo Boy this week: Friday at 5 PM at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln (call 773-728-6000 for more information); Saturday at 8:30 PM at the American Indian Center, 1630 W. Wilson (773-275-5871); Sunday at noon at NAES College, 2838 W. Peterson (773-761-5000); and Monday at 6:30 PM at the Chicago Historical Society, Clark at North (312-642-5035, ext. 210). Elsie Mae Begay and John Wayne Cly will attend the last three screenings.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ray Manley.