DOCUMENTARY | USA | 82 MINUTES | English
Navajo Nation USA
“In our way of life, they call them monsters. As Indigenous People, these are monsters that are beating us up every day. These modern day monsters are alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty, … and cancer.” ~Jonathan Nez President, Navajo Nation
Navajo Nation USA is the collective story of four main characters within the native lands of the Navajo set against the backdrop of cancer-causing uranium left unchecked by the US government.
On the Navajo Nation, a significant cause of cancer is rooted in uranium exploration that took place during the Cold War, during which 4 million tons of uranium were extracted from Navajo land without their consent to build bombs for the US. Today there are over 500 open, abandoned uranium mines that have yet to be cleaned up by the federal government. Although the Navajo Nation has a ban on uranium mining and transportation, their people continue to be affected every day.
The U.S. EPA reports that between 1944 and 1986, 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from the sacred lands of the Navajo people. The Navajo Nation is an area that’s 27,000 square miles, larger than the state of West Virginia, spanning Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, with over 350,000 citizens.
In a society where there is little change, the voices and efforts of our characters are bringing change and advancing support of culturally-sensitive health care, as well as promising efforts from many advocates to repair the land, build the infrastructure, and bring improved and enhanced health care to tribal lands. The Navajo are dealing with nightmares of the past, but their dreams for a healthier future are inspiring.
In order to understand the stories of these monsters, uranium and cancer, it’s important to understand the culture and the people, and how they are connected to the land. Like the four sacred mountains that outline the boundaries of their lands, our four main characters frame our story, and provide a rare glimpse into the everyday lives of a people that many have forgotten or know so little about.
The cultural experience goes into the daily routine of Walter Phelps, a rancher and former leader on the tribal council, who lives a very typical and traditional Navajo life. His ranch is far removed from major populations, without water and electricity. He begins each day hauling water needed for living. Walter raises cattle and sheep, with a century of sheep-pens from generations of work. But there is no waste— the sheep are used for everything, and everything from the sheep is used for life. The sheep are sheared in the Spring and the wool is turned to yarn that’s dyed and turned into traditional Navajo rugs, an artistry that has been passed down for centuries. The rancher’s 85-year old mother, who only speaks her native tongue, uses her own mother’s loom to masterfully weave an incredible work of art as she explains the tradition of the process.
Valinda Shirley lives in two worlds. There is the world of Western society and applied sciences, and as the head of The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, Valinda is deeply entrenched in the sciences to better help her people. But there is also part of her that is very traditionally Navajo. It’s a culture, it’s a language, it’s filled with practices and ceremonies, and all is connected to the land. She sees that perhaps a lot of the issues may not have happened if the Navajo people would have resisted and kept within their traditions. Her coworker and military veteran, Dariel Yazzie, is currently receiving treatment for a brain tumor.
Valinda and her staff attend a community meeting at Red Water Pond Road Community, one of the most impacted sites of from uranium contamination as they host a rare visit from the US EPA and US Nuclear Regulatory Commision (NRC) who have agreed to visit the impacted sites in person and listen to the community’s feedback against the proposed solutions for remediation.
We also meet Jerrel Singer, a painter and activist— or self-proclaimed “ART-ivist”— who uses his art to create awareness of the issues of uranium in the Navajo Nation. Jerrel has lost dozens of family members, including his own father and brothers, to cancer likely resulting from their life-long exposure to uranium. In addition to symbolism for the threat from uranium, he uses his paint color to show the beauty of the land and sky. But he states that, like a dangerous animal, the bright colors can also signal close danger.
Within the Navajo Nation sits the enclave nation of the Hopi people. Rachel Sahmie Nampeyo is a 5th generation Hopi-Tewa potter, and great granddaughter of the renowned Hopi Potter, best known by the singular name of Nampeyo. Nampeyo’s pottery can be found in the Smithsonian as well as many other museums representing traditional Hopi pottery.
Rachel is also a patient receiving cancer care in Tuba City and is teaching her daughter her craft to continue her family’s legacy. Though her cancer is advanced, Rachel doesn’t reside in fear. She walks in beauty. Her acceptance of whatever may come and positive outlook are as unusual as they are inspirational. She feels that she is ready to go and has served her purpose. She compares one’s life with pottery and returning to mother earth, just as the clay had initially been pulled from her.
In addition to these main characters, we also spend time with Jonathan Nez, the President of the Navajo Nation, as he speaks out against these monsters’ assaults on his people and connects them to many wrongs of the past, like the infamous Long Walk, and desperately tries to make progress for his people. This begins and ends with visits from The First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, who first visited the Navajo Nation prior to becoming the First Lady, and has visited several times since. Dr. Biden works with the Navajo Nation and celebrates the first-ever cancer treatment center on an native lands. She inspires us with her words to the Navajo people and gives hope for a better future.
But no words could be more inspiring than those from Ben Sorrell, an historian and guide for the Museum of The Navajo Nation. Ben introduces us to the Navajo Nation creation story that gives insight into the concept of monsters, the strong connection to the land, and reminds us of the horrors that the Navajo Nation has endured from the advance of whites across the land.
Ben reminds us that “the Navajo People are still here. As a people and a culture we continue to remain. And throughout all the atrocities and horrors of Navajo history, we have continued to stay strong. We continue to carry on our language. We continue to instill strength into our young people. We continue to practice our culture on a daily basis. And, that’s what makes us Navajo. And by us saying that ‘we are still here’ means that we are continuing to be an active participant in our own cultural existence and future – and we will maintain our strength as Navajo People.
CAST & CREDITS
Directed by Deren Paul Abram
Emmy Award winning producer, filmmaker/videographer, editor, and writer, with over 25 years of extensive experience in film and television including: feature films, reality programming, promos, episodics, MOWs, and over a decade of producing hundreds of highly conceptual marketing, commercial, educational, and various internal and external videos for a variety of global corporations with strict branding guidelines and deliverables. Resume includes The ESPY Awards, X-Games, Food Network, ABC Sports, NFL’s Monday Night Football, IFC, Sundance Channel, ESPN, History Channel, Sony, HBO, Documentary Channel, Comedy Central, INSP, PAX, E!, Warner Brothers, Universal Studios, just to name just a few.
Deren Paul Abram
Deren Paul Abram, Kim Thiboldeaux
Deren Paul Abram, Kim Thiboldeaux, Guillermo Escolar Roques
Rachel Sahmie Nampeyo, Jerrel Singer, Walter Phelps, Valinda Shirley, Dr. Jill Biden
In Person Showtimes
Q&A with Filmmakers
Deren Paul Abram
your name will be at ‘Will Call’
Fine Arts Theatre
8556 Wilshire Blvd
Beverly Hills, CA 90211
Beverly Hills City Garage
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