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In 1966, Sol Worth,  John Adair and Richard Chalfen traveled to Pine Springs, Arizona, where they taught a group of Navajo students to make documentary films. Their students were Mike Anderson, Al Clah, Susie Benally, Johnny Nelson, Mary Jane Tsosie and Maxine Tsosie  and later Susie Benally’s mother, Alta Kahn.  This film series is known as the Navajo Film Themselves, sometimes mistakenly called Through Navajo Eyes, which is the title of the book that Worth and Adair wrote.

Sign for the World Premiere of the film series. Photo by one of the research team.

Worth was a professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. Adair was a professor of anthropology at San Francisco State University. They were assisted by Richard Chalfen, Worth’s former student.

The aims of the project were various, and incorporated both anthropological and communications theory. The researchers wanted to know if it was possible to teach filmmaking to members of a culture vastly different from their own. In addition, they asked how a film made by a Navajo person might differ from a film made by  members of other cultural groups, including their own.

Alta Kahn edits her film as her daughter, Susie Benally, watches. Photo by one of the research team.

The research team met with their students for eight hours a day, five days a week, during June and July of 1966. They gave their students basic instructions, while emphasizing that the students should make a film about whatever was important to them. During the project the students were paid the U.S. minimum wage. After two months, the seven completed films were shared with the Pine Springs community.

The films became world renown, as did the researchers. In 1972, they published Through Navajo Eyes (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), which is considered one of the cornerstone texts of visual anthropology.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) currently owns the distribution rights to the films. The films were recently released by Visionmaker, a Native American video distributor, on DVD, together with newly-found material. The Museum is pursuing a mechanism with which to share profits from the sales of the DVD with the filmmakers and their families.

The purpose of this website is to give context to the project by providing a thorough reading of primary source materials. Apart from the information in the 1997 edition of Through Navajo Eyes, we have provided a thorough reading of the Sol Worth Papers (UPT 50 W933), University of Pennsylvania Archives, Philadelphia, PA. [Hereafter referred to as Worth Papers]. The papers and finding aid are available to the public. These documents include but are not limited to:

  • Worth’s field journal
  •  Adair’s field journal
  • Chalfen’s field journal
  • Correspondence between the researchers
  • Correspondence between Worth and the students
  • Transcripts of interviews and class sessions
  • Pages from the students’ notebooks*

We hope that you enjoy this inside look at the Navajo Film Themselves project, and that you will refer to the news section for any updates about the film series.

* We anticipate that many researchers will, as we did, hope to find journals comparable in length and detail to those of the researchers. We regret to have learned that these journals are largely impersonal and contain mostly doodles and class notes. In order to better understand the students’ point of view, we have turned to transcripts of interviews and class sessions, as well as the researchers’ observation, using the archival materials at hand.

A note on names: we have adhered to the names of the filmmakers and researchers as they appeared in 1966 throughout this site.  Names of many people have since changed, and several participants are no longer with us.