More Information

Sol Worth Papers, University of Pennsylvania Archives – finding aid

Protocols for Native American Archival Materials

Navajo Nation Museum

First edition of Through Navajo Eyes

Here we plan to add links to substantive articles about the films

  An Archivist’s View of the Navajo Film Themselves Series  

Kate Pourshariati, Film Archivist, Penn Museum

This page may be of more interest to archivists, film historians, and scholars of indigenous media than to the general reading audience so my apologies in advance if it is overly detailed. A lot of interesting things have happened with the films that make up the series, Navajo Film Themselves, (more popularly if incorrectly known as Through Navajo Eyes) since their initial publication in 1966.

As documented in the book Through Navajo Eyes, the initial filmmaking experiment was funded by a National Science Foundation grant, which was used partially to purchase gear (Bell and Howell Filmo wind-up cameras, Moviscop viewers, etc.) and film, and to pay the filmmakers/project participants salaries during the course of the project in Pine Springs, Arizona, in the Navajo Nation. At the end of the filming, a screening was held, to which the community was invited; this is all documented in the book Through Navajo Eyes. To our knowledge, outside of this screening the films were not shown again on the Navajo Nation until restored prints were brought out by the Penn Museum in 2011. Both Richard Chalfen and Elizabeth Weatherford have mentioned screenings at conferences in the southwest that took place in the 1980s and 1990s, attended by some of the filmmakers.  From the time the films were made, none of the filmmakers again worked in video or film. Although John Nelson and Al Clah both expressed an interest in doing so, finances and other circumstances prohibited either from pursuing this work.  As documented in previous sections of this website, there was a contemplation of a Navajo Film Unit remaining onsite, including Susie Benally and John Nelson.

At Sol Worth’s untimely passing in 1977, his papers went to the University of Pennsylvania Archives. From these manuscripts, which are very carefully tended and organized, one can follow the path of the distribution of the films from 1967 to 1977. The films were distributed by Columbia University for some time, then later by the Museum of Modern Art. It seems the MoMA was interested in the films possibly because Visual Anthropologist Emilie de Brigard was curating for the MoMA in the 1970’s and because of the perhaps unexpected fame of Intrepid Shadows, which became an art film festival circuit hit, (and since, a staple in Cinema Studies curricula).

The film elements (all of the original footage and copies)  were stored for many years at the Annenberg Center of the University of Pennsylvania, where Sol Worth taught and worked, and remained there until 1991, when the Annenberg 16mm film archives was closed. They were offered to The University Museum (Penn Museum), which was happy to accept them.

When I arrived at the Penn Museum in 2006, archivist Alex Pezzati introduced me to the collection, which consists of all of the original materials: negative A & B rolls, work-prints, master prints, distribution prints, and outtakes. About a year later I also rediscovered all of the original camera reels, which had been stored in an unmarked white box, unidentified except for the initials of each of the filmmakers. In the intervening period, I had contacted the Library of Congress, having realized that the films were listed on the Library of Congress National Film Registry. This annual list consists of films that are deemed important to save in perpetuity. I later learned that the films were suggested for submission by Pam Wintle of the Human Studies Film Archives.

In 2007 Alex contacted Mrs. Tobia Worth, Sol’s widow, to request a formal deed of gift, formalizing the transfer of rights to the Penn Museum. We then began the process of restoring and conserving the films, in addition to that of reconnecting with the original filmmakers.

I asked Stephen Leggett, who administers and nurtures the National Film Registry, if the Library of Congress (LoC) had copies of these films, assuming that the LoC would like to have one copy of each film on its list. He confirmed that they did not, and that they would very much like to have a set.  Normally in these circumstances the LoC would return a complimentary print of each of the films to the donor, but since we had several copies of almost all seven films, we asked instead to have digital Betacam copies made of each film instead, and reference DVD surrogates.  After discovering the original camera reels, I considered a new plan. Would the Library of Congress consider holding the entire collection, and be able to give us digital copies of all of the original camera reels? This solved two large problems, one, the cold dry storage for the legacy collection, and two, I hoped to develop a project to make digital copies of the camera reels available to younger Navajo filmmakers to use in remixing the original project (subject to the approval of the original filmmakers and families). The timing of this project coincided more or less with the launch of the LoC  NAVCC lab in Culpeper, making the entire project possible. Due to the perseverance of Head of the Library of Congress Moving Image Section Mike Mashon, Supervisor of the Film Preservation Laboratory Ken Weissman, and Curator Rob Stone and many others, including Brian Allan, Ken Mitchell, Claire Downey, Carol Galbraith, Donna Ross, Cary O’Dell, John Carter, Yale Penzell, and Patrick Kennedy, Michael Hinton, Robyn Schnellenberger, Rebekah Castaneda, Julia Schmitt, and Barbara Whitehead, all with Stephen Leggett at the lead, we began the project, which as of 2012 is still underway.

On my first trip through the Sol Worth papers, housed in the University of Pennsylvania Archives, I immediately looked for the distribution deal that Worth had struck with the MoMA, and also whether the original filmmakers had ever been paid from the royalties of these films. I learned that Worth had promised prints to the original filmmakers, and had in general provided them, except for Al Clah, who received his print later at the request of a librarian in Oregon. It struck me that the opening sequence of each film makes the point that each filmmaker is the sole author of the film that follows, and yet the question of authorship was not revisited, at least as of 1975. It seemed that MoMA’s contract had long expired, and the films had never been available in DVD, let alone published VHS videotapes. Perhaps if the films could be repackaged it might be possible to return a stream of income to the original filmmakers or the estates of those that had passed away in the interim. To figure out which of the filmmakers was still alive we needed to establish a contact in the Navajo Nation. Through Bill Wierzbowski, Penn Museum’s Associate Keeper of the American Section, Alex was introduced to Keevin Lewis, Program Coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian, who in turn led us to Eunice Kahn, Archivist of the Navajo Nation Museum. We had no idea at first that Eunice had a direct family connection to the films of Susie Benally and Alta Kahn, until I met her in Washington DC. This was a very exciting moment.

Because of my contact with the LoC at NAVCC, I was invited by the LoC Office of Diversity to give a talk for Native American History Month in November, 2010, about the collaborative work that we had arranged with NAVCC, and future plans for the films. When asked about fellow speakers for the talk, I recommended Eunice. It was there that I began making plans with Eunice to visit the Navajo Nation Museum for a screening of the films, the first local screening since 1966.

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 The Spirit of the Navajo. 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 Archive 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 digibeta and DVD copies for distribution are slightly edited. 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 AV material at the request of indigenous people, and certainly the first time the request was made to follow the protocols.

Another element that we have made available through the LoC digitization that was never available before is a sound track for Intrepid Shadows. As mentioned in the book, Al Clah wrote a poem, also called Intrepid Shadows. What was not known was that he recorded the poem in 1966. The sound recording had been left unidentified. I discovered it as a 16mm fullcoat magnetic transfer, in an unmarked box. (Hearing Clah’s voice reading the poem on a borrowed Steenbeck was an inspiring moment). It is hard to say, because there are no notes yet discovered, what Worth’s intentions were for this recording, but the fact that it was transferred from the original ¼” format recording to 16mm full-coat seems to indicate that he and Clah seriously considered marrying that poem to the film at one point. On the full-coat there are many takes in which Clah reads over several times for test recordings using different recorders. We asked the talented people at NAVCC if they could add this for the videotape version of Intrepid Shadows, so that it could be an optional sound track on the DVD.

Finally, we discovered an unpublished, unedited film reel, which we call Behind the Scenes, and likely was photographed mostly by Richard Chalfen. In the book it is noted that Worth and Adair did not want too much filming to take place by them or by Chalfen, in order that they not influence the filmmakers in terms of style. However at least one roll of film was taken, which begins with several takes of Worth and Adair acting as if they are talking about the making of the films, and then mostly shows footage of Susie Benally teaching her mother Alta Kahn how to use the movie camera and how to edit.

The screening of the films at the Navajo Nation Museum on October 20, 2011, was a great hit, largely due to Eunice Kahn’s success in bringing in a large audience. The comments of audience members were recorded, and many expressed strong emotions about the changes that had occurred since the making of the films, and appreciation that some things had been recorded for posterity. There was a sense that for the audience the usefulness of the films would be improved by adding narration to explain what was happening, probably in Navajo, for the Navajo youth. Little by little we realized that many of the audience were closely or distantly related to the filmmakers. Also present were John Nelson, who made a great effort to attend despite health issues, and Susie Benally. We asked Susie for her thoughts on seeing the films after so many years, but she was quite shy and preferred not to speak on camera. John Nelson gave extensive interviews in Navajo and in English. One of his most strongly emphasized points was that he had created soundtracks for his two films with John Adair sometime after 1966, but unfortunately these are not with the collection at the Penn Museum. After some investigation, Teresa Montoya and I have made the tentative discovery that there may be some related recordings at the Wheelwright Museum, which is co-administered by the Pine Springs Association. We have yet to hear the recordings to find out if they are Nelson’s. The Tsosie sisters did not come to the gathering. Mark Deschinny of the Pine Springs Community Association mentioned that when the ladies realized they might be asked to say a few words they decided not to come. The remainder of the filmmakers had since passed away, first Alta Kahn, then Al Clah, and just recently Mike Anderson.

In December 2012 we made DVD copies available. All profits for the film go directly back to the filmmakers or their surviving family members. See DVD tab for more information.

At this point the films have a much stronger connection with the community in Pine Springs than they have had in most of the past 40 years. We do not know exactly what the next aspect of community and artist collaboration will be, and that is the exciting thing.