1966 Film Made in the Navajo Nation Gets Sound 50 years Later

June 6, 2016

Maxine and Mary Jane Tsosie with their Grandfather Sam Yazzie
Maxine and Mary Jane Tsosie with their Grandfather Sam Yazzie

Thanks to a unique set of circumstances a developing relationship has borne fruit this year for the Museum Archives. A film made in 1966 by Dr. Richard Chalfen, who generously donated his work to the Museum a few years ago, was never quite complete; it was lacking a sound track. In 2015 our Film Archivist went to Boston as part of a small crew to record Chalfen’s newly written first person narrative. The film, recently restored and preserved under a grant by the National Film Preservation Foundation, depicts the workings of the famous Navajo Film Themselves project, designed by Sol Worth and John Adair, also resulting in the well-known text Through Navajo Eyes. In 1966 Chalfen was in his early twenties, like most of the participants in the project, Navajo people from the Pine Springs area, about 45 minutes from Window Rock, Arizona.

Over the years the original seven Navajo films became classroom standards in many Anthropology and Visual Anthropology courses, also in Media Studies and Communications, Cinema Studies, and Native American studies curricula. The films were sold for many years by the Museum of Modern Art. The one place where they were rarely seen was in the place where they were made, until 2011, when we returned the films for a screening at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, organized by the Navajo Archivist Eunice Kahn.

Most importantly, together with the Library of Congress, we have organized the creation of a digital archive of the edited films and the original camera reels, which will end up back in Pine Springs for the filmmakers and people of the community to use as they see fit. Elizabeth Weatherford of the National Museum of the American Indian thinks that when completed this will be the largest repatriation project of films or audiovisual materials to any Native community in the United States. It is not certain what the families and the community will do with the archive; there has been a suggestion to add sound tracks, making the films more ‘useful’ for passing down knowledge to younger people. No matter what, the films have become a primary source of cultural history and highly valued as family memory.
Chalfen’s new/old film 50 years after Through Navajo Eyes (1966/2016) is still in a sense incomplete. Together with local partners we will attempt to gather narrative tracks by the living filmmakers, Alfred Clah, Susie Benally, Maxine and Mary Jane Tsosie, and others, and make them available as alternative tracks in a new DVD.

Mike Anderson's little brother
Mike Anderson’s little brother

So the film is still a work in progress, but in the meantime Philadelphia audiences will be able to see the very first, premiere screening of this film on Saturday, June 11th at 5 pm at the Penn Museum. Richard Chalfen will be present to answer questions as well as Vanessa Iyua, who traveled with us to Arizona in 2011, and who comes from the area of the filming, and Stephanie Mach, a Museum staff member and Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania who also has family from the area.

We hope to see you at this free screening.

The DVD/film set, Navajo Film Themselves, may be purchased at Visionmaker Media, with profits going to the original seven filmmakers or their families.