The Spirit of the Navajo

Mary Jane and Maxine Tsosie

Mary Jane Tsosie. Photo by one of the research team.

Mary Jane and Maxine were sisters born in Pine Springs, but they spent little time there. They were the daughters of Juan Tsosie, the chapter chairman, and the granddaughters of Sam Yazzie, a celebrated medicine man.

Maxine Tsosie. Photo by one of the research team.

They wanted to make a film about traditional Navajo culture in the hopes of learning more about it themselves. Mary Jane was 21 at the time of the project, and Maxine was 17.

Note that the title screen of the film actually reads “Spirit of Navajos” but this title was changed in all of the materials by Worth thereafter.

The Spirit of the Navajo

Sam Yazzie. Frame capture, “The Spirit of the Navajo.”

Sam Yazzie. Frame capture, “The Spirit of the Navajo.”


Sam Yazzie. Frame capture, “The Spirit of the Navajo.”

Description exerpted from Through Navajo Eyes (269).


“The daughters of the chapter chairman of the community decided to make a film showing “the old ways.” They chose their grandfather [Sam Yazzie] as subject. He was one of the best known “singers” (medicine men) in the area. The film opens with [Yazzie] walking across the landscape, digging and searching for roots and herbs which he is to use as part of a ceremony. We see him at one of the “camps” before a ceremony, eating and drinking. The sequence of [Yazzie] eating is the only one in which a face close-up is shown.”

“We then see the making of a sand painting from beginning to end.”

“It was impossible for the Navajo to consider using a Navajo as a patient, [due to potential harm] so they chose Richard Chalfen, the research assistant, to reenact the part of a patient. The film ends with the grandfather walking from the hogan after his ceremony to his own camp.”

Why make a film about Navajo traditions?

It is evident that the sisters’ goal in making the film was to educate people about Navajo culture. Maxine explained to Worth, “…people out where you… come from don’t…know any…maybe some of them don’t know how Navajos live and how they do, what they do to make a living. And maybe we could uh, take some shots of it” (1).

According to Mary Jane, “Well, I think a lot of people haven’t seen…among the Navajos…they know about them from the outside…white men…and up here on reservations they don’t know anything about medicine men…” (2).

When Worth asked Maxine why she wanted to make a film about something she had never seen before, she responded, “Well, it’s something that I’ve never seen and I want to do it…Well maybe there’s people out that way, they’ve never seen it, you know, and I could show a baby, a, a, maybe a 14 year old kid, turn into a grown up lady” (3).


Worth showed Anderson’s  film at Swarthmore College in 1966, and in Washington, DC in 1967.

In 1982, Mike Anderson, Mary Jane Tsosie, and Richard Chalfen screened some of the at a film conference entitled “The American Indian Image on Film: The Southwest,” organized by the Native American Studies Program at the University of New Mexico.

In 2010, PM film archivist Kate Pourshariati began collaborating with Eunice Kahn, archivist of the Navajo Nation Museum on a screening program to be held at the Navajo Nation Museum in 2011. In preparation for this screening, P sent all seven original films to Kahn to preview. She explained,

We sent Eunice DVD copies of the seven films as soon as we had some, and after a short time we were told of a concern about the film Spirit of Navajos. The Navajo Nation Museum’s Cultural Consultant, Robert Johnson, indicated that parts of the sand painting ceremony might be harmful for Navajo people, especially children, and not appropriate for people outside of the culture to see. In the book Adair states that the ceremony depicted had several inauthentic aspects and according to him was therefore likely not taboo for filming, but having recently spoken with Eunice about the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials (to which she contributed) we decided that it was better to
defer to Robert Johnson and Eunice Kahn’s expertise. The original materials have not been altered, but the videotape and DVD copies for distribution are slightly edited. In fact it would be difficult for the viewer to notice any difference, unless comparing the footage directly; the sand painting ceremony is still a central feature of the film. The LoC was given a lengthy spreadsheet with tiny portions requested for removal. According to correspondence with Ken Weissman, it was likely the first time that the LoC was asked to redact cultural audio-visual material at the request of indigenous people, and certainly the first time the request was made to follow the protocols. We should again emphasize that this DVD release of the films is an edition or single version of publication, the original film footage has not been edited.  Should concerned Navajo groups wish to meet with the filmmakers and review both versions it would be quite possible to make a new version or restore it as it originally appeared.