The Navajo Silversmith & The Shallow Well

Johnny Nelson

Johnny Nelson. Photo by one of the research team.

Nelson was born in Indian Wells, a community seventy miles from Pine Springs. At the time of the project, he was 33 years old and married to Ruby Burnsides. Vice-chairman of the local chapter, Nelson was heavily involved with community politics. When Sol Worth met him, he was working for The Griswolds’ Pine Springs trading post.

When Johnny asked Worth if he himself could be a student, it was clear that he was interested in the many possibilities that filmmaking could afford him. It seems that this enthusiasm only increased as the project went on;  in one interview with Worth, he said “What I really want to see is something that can move in front of my eyes and that I took myself” (1). He was also the only student to make two films, The Navajo Silversmith (20:31) and The Shallow Well (20:00).

The Navajo Silversmith 

Descriptions exerpted from Through Navajo Eyes (268).

“The film starts with a series of shots showing the Navajo silversmith completing the filing on some little Yeibechai figures which have already been cast and are on his work bench.”

“We then cut away from this…We see the silversmith walking and wandering across the Navajo landscape and finally arriving at what appears to be a silver mine. The silversmith spends a great deal of time finding nuggets of silver embedded in the rock.”

“He then spends another period of walking and wandering to look for the particular kind of sandstone from which he will make his mold. We see him working at sawing and grinding his mold, finally drawing his design in the sand, and then transferring it to the mold.”

“After the mold is made we see him melting the nuggets of silver and pouring the silver into the mold. He goes through the process of filing and polishing and the last shot in the film is the shot with which we began.”

“At one point in the film, during the silversmith’s wanderings to find silver, the film is interrupted to show us what appears to be an abandoned log cabin. In this sequence, the circular camera movements, moving clockwise like the sun, are most clearly apparent.”

Why make a film about a silversmith? 

Nelson made it clear that it was important for the “outside world” to learn more about this aspect of Navajo culture. He emphasized how important it was that consumers of Navajo crafts understood the work that went in to making them. That way, consumers would appreciate the products and understand why they were valued at such a high price. He said,

I think the outside world has it right now that only men, see I’ve never seen a woman silversmith in magazines, anywhere…All, I’ve seen is men…but I can take a picture of a woman silversmith, how she works her hand and how that she can do it. I think that would be very interesting…(2).

In addition, he stated that

…I think some of the people might realize that…this is important because…there’s a lot of demand for jewelry. You know from different states and different countries. You know, a lot of the, there’s a lot of people that comes around here the trading posts…cause it’s…the headquarter for Indian jewelry. And I think…if I can show this to some of the people, outside the reservation or maybe back east, they will realize how an Indian can make something…There’d be more work and then…this will also make other people realize that the Navajo people has something to live for, to hold their own, their culture…(3).

Drawing from Johnny’s notebook. Probably a plan for his practice film. Worth Papers, B15FF19.

The Shallow Well

“…[Johnny] was asked to supervise the construction of the shallow well…He told the relative who suggested that he undertake the supervision of this construction that he couldn’t do it because he was learning to make movies. But then he realized that perhaps he could make a film about it…”

“It opens…showing…a series of shots of the old open ponds from which the Navajo used to draw water. We then see a series of close-ups of flies and insects on the water.”

“After moving with the camera around the stagnant pool we cut quickly to a series of Navajo workmen beginning to build their shallow well. We follow…the process, in close-ups, by which the various portions of the well are built. Inter-cut at moments are shots of the Navajo reading blue-springs, measuring with yardsticks, and receiving instructions from the foreman who actually was in charge of the project.”

“When the job is finished we see a Navajo (Johnny used Worth to play the part of a Navajo) walking up to the well and drawing water and we see water coming from the various parts of the shallow well. The film ends…with a series of shots of trucks driving away from the well.”

Why make a film about a shallow well?

Nelson chose to make a documentary film about the building of the shallow well rather than working to construct the well himself. As he explained,

But Sully, you know, he came out there and then he wanted me to be the foreman on the project. And then when we had that conversation with him, he mentioned something about that uh, about the public health service willing to either through the movie or though uh, or just through fixing up something, like the wells, the shallow well program. How they can really explain to the outside people, you know, people away from the reservation, or maybe…another different state, to show them why it is very important that they fix up these shallow wells, to eliminate a lot of these sicknesses, on the reservation (4).

During another interview, Nelson explained why he believed it was important to make a documentary about the shallow well:

The idea is to uh, how the old ways was and then…how people can work for themselves to make this old well, and this old spring a better spring, where they’ll have better drinking water (5).

He also explained the importance Navajo filmmaking in general:

Well…I’m going to try to make this picture about the well here, so that maybe some people who are at Window Rock…when they see this film…and they realize that how important it is, you know, to show this, it might be shown to other people, where they will, they would realize and maybe, in the future maybe after they would think about it and maybe they would wanted to make a movie about other…things on the reservation. And I, in my opinion I think uh if somebody knows, like uh, the public relations or maybe the education committee or maybe somebody big, would see this film, they might wanted to have the film continued by some of their own people…In my opinion…If I was to say whether I would propose something like this to continue, I would say very definitely that I would like to see it grow. And I would like to see some of our younger people…continue some of this stuff. You know, this is something that it was just was just coming out of a oh, lets say like a wishing well (6).

Post Project

Nelson showed The Shallow Well at the public school in Sanders, Arizona, “at the request of his children” (7).  According to Chalfen, when he and Adair visited in 1992, Nelson had told him that:

“his daughter, Roberta, had asked him to show his films at nearby Showlow. People at the neighboring Lupton Chapter House also have asked him to screen the silversmith film, and he has shown it in the Pine Springs Boarding School. Benny Silversmith, chapter president for Pine Springs and Oak Springs, has also requested screenings, including his Shallow Well and even his practice Summer Shower film…this surprised us, because we didn’t recall that he had a print of this footage” (8).

Worth showed the films at Swarthmore College in 1966, in Washington, DC in 1967. The films were most recently shown in 2011 at the Navajo Nation Museum. Nelson attended and gave a long speech in Navajo and in English. Below is an excerpt of his speech in Navajo:

Hello everyone. It is nice to have the film return. I wasn’t sure where it went and I’m happy to have it back. Thank you to everyone for coming from far away. Thank you very much. The children are now grown with white hair and they are saying hello to me now, so hello back to you.

My wheelchair is what I use now, but I used to walk around. I recently fell so that’s why I use a wheelchair now, but everything is OK. Thank you everyone for coming here and watching the film that was made in 1966, the men came and who did they want to help. They told us the film was to be made by us and not them. How you think about it, how you make it, we were told. They showed us how the camera works. Runs and puts together, and what it does. That’s all we were taught.

They told us to think about how our families would see and understand the films. The men came b/c they wanted to know how we thought, the men, John and Sol Worth. We were able to make films. I was able to partake in it too. I made a portion that the voice recording but that’s not in it. It was both English and Navajo to help you understand. But that’s not in the film, but I hope you like what you see in the film (9).

Nelson emphasized that at one time he made a sound track for both of his films, and perhaps others, together with John Adair. He believed these soundtracks would be added to the films at a future time, and he felt strongly that these tracks should be located. Unfortunately, they were never found in the Penn museum collections. Several researchers are currently investigating to see if they might be at the Wheelwright Museum. Other aspects of his talk related to changes in traditions and loss of certain traditional practices. With Nelson’s permission, we hope to include excerpts from his speech or an interview in the upcoming DVD edition.