restricted access Chapter 3: “As If I Were Lost and Finally Found”: Repatriation and Visual Continuity in Imagining Indians and The Return of Navajo Boy
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3 “As If I Were Lost and Finally Found” Repatriation and Visual Continuity in Imagining Indians and The Return of Navajo Boy The poster for Jeff Spitz’s 2001 documentary film The Return of Navajo Boy visualizes a scenario of encounter, one not seen in the film itself but rather present everywhere in the visual texts that surround it. Against the backdrop of Monument Valley’s rock spires, a man and a woman with their backs to the camera contemplate a life‑size cardboard figure of John Wayne (see figure 3.1). The people in the poster are Elsie Mae Cly Begay and John Wayne Cly, Diné siblings from Monument Valley who were separated during childhood when missionaries adopted John as a toddler. The image stages both their separation (the cardboard figure stands between them) and—because of their presence together within the frame—their reunion. As a visual metatext the poster also alludes to Native viewers’ confrontations with past media and with mediated pasts as well as the intrusion of media productions and images into the private lives of particular families. The flattened image of John Wayne is a ghostlike presence from the cinematic past, an iconic emissary of imperialist storytelling called to account for the consequences of Hollywood’s productions. The life‑size figure also embodies the continuation of the stories Hollywood made—the broad impact and long shelf‑life of the Western. In the poster, this two‑dimensional image of John Wayne is propped beside John Wayne Cly, who is holding a small home‑movie camera. Address‑ ing more than a century of unequal power relations in the production of visual media in which Native people have been the subjects of outsiders’ 179 180 / Native Recognition cameras, John Wayne Cly’s camera figures a turning point in Indigenous peoples’ control over the production and circulation of their images. The two John Waynes—the white star and the Diné man—reveal Diné history to be deeply intertwined with movie history. The image highlights the most famous star of sound‑era studio Westerns while drawing our attention to the reflexive turn in contemporary film, the impulse in Indigenous films Figure 3.1. Poster for The Return of Navajo Boy, Groundswell Educational Films (2001). “As If I Were Lost and Finally Found” / 181 and coproductions not only to reject Western images from the past, but also to revisit and interrogate them by engaging in a conversation with the history of image‑making, as the Clys seem to be doing when they face the life‑size photographic image. The text of the poster emphasizes this conver‑ sational pose: “There are thousands of pictures of us, but we never got to say anything. Until now.” Speaking—and corresponding voiceovers framing visual images—as well as processes of assembly in production and editing are underscored here as the film’s particular intervention in the replication and circulation of images of Indians produced for the entertainment and tourist industries. In all these ways, the poster imagines and articulates a confrontation with the history of the Western and the social impacts of Hollywood and tourist image production, bringing together the work of telling family stories with the reframing of commercial images. The Return of Navajo Boy tells the story of a contemporary Diné family receiving footage taken of them by an amateur filmmaker in the 1950s.1 In the Cly family’s process of viewing and discussing the film more than 40 years later, however, other memories and stories emerged, and the film’s focus became the legacies of tourism and of environmental contamination in Monument Valley. The reverberations of the family’s viewing and comment‑ ing on the returned film also led to a reunion with their lost sibling when a newspaper article about the family’s new film project helped John Wayne Cly find his birth family. The film is complicated by its multiple, inter‑ generational, and intercultural authorship—director Jeff Spitz worked with Diné coproducer Bennie Klain, who was hired initially as a translator and later became an essential advisor during postproduction, eventually helping to shape the film’s narrative structure.2 The film was privately financed by Bill Kennedy, the son of the original filmmaker of the 1950s film Navaho Boy, and was geared for a pbs television audience. The Cly family collec‑ tively articulated what they wanted their images to accomplish, including sharing their story with their family’s future generations and the political goal of drawing public attention to...


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Subject Headings

  • Indians in motion pictures.
  • Indigenous films -- United States.
  • Western films -- United States.
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