The Return of Navajo Boy

USA 2000/2008 | 57 min and 15 min Epilogue | Documentary
Director: Jeff Spitz | Produced by Jeff Spitz and Bennie Klain

The film chronicles an extraordinary chain of events, beginning with the appearance of a 1950s film reel, which lead to the return of a long lost brother to his Navajo family. Living for more than six decades in Monument Valley (on the Arizona/Utah border), the Cly family has an extraordinary history in pictures. Since the1930′s, family members have appeared as unidentified subjects in countless photographs and films shot in Monument Valley including various postcards, Hollywood Westerns and a rare home-movie by legendary director John Ford. But it is the sudden appearance of a rarely seen vintage film that affects their lives the most. With the return of “Navajo Boy,” Elsie seizes the opportunity to tell her family’s story for the first time, offering a unique perspective to the history of the American west. Using a variety of still photos and moving images from the 40s and 50s and telling their family story in their own voices, the Clys shed light on the Native side of picture making and uranium mining in Monument Valley. 

The Return of Navajo Boy, an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival and PBS, is an internationally acclaimed documentary that reunited a Navajo family and triggered a federal investigation into uranium contamination. It tells the story of Elsie Mae Begay, whose history in pictures reveals an incredible and ongoing struggle for environmental justice. A powerful new epilogue (produced in 2008) shows how the film and Groundswell Educational Films’ outreach campaign create news and rally supporters including Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA). The Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform mandated a clean-up plan by the five agencies that are responsible for uranium contamination.

The documentary, epilogue and now 15 webisodes have leveraged several remarkable impacts: Bernie Cly, one of the Navajo family featured, has been awarded $100,000 in compensation from the US government; the EPA demolished a dangerous house made out of uranium which was featured in the film and completed its $8 million dollar clean up of the abandoned uranium mine located in the backyard of the Navajo family featured in the documentary. The most recent webisode in April 2014, informs viewers that the Navajo tribe won the largest environmental settlement in American history, $1 billion payout from Kerr-McGee, the corporate contaminator exposed by the documentary. 

2000, Best Documentary, Indian Summer Festival
2000, Programmer's Choice Award, Planet in Focus Film Festival, Canada
2000, Audience Award, Durango International Film Festival
2000, Official Selection, Sundance Film Festival

Director's Statement

I entered the world of indigenous film Suddenly without any previous contact with Native Americans. I just tried to find the people in an old film from the 1950s called Navajo Boy. My search for them took me into Monument Valley and into an astonishing Navajo family history involving Hollywood, uranium mining, and a missing baby. The Cly family accepted me. We had no idea where the documentary process was going to lead us. I learned how to see things from the inside out and not like a reporter looking in from outside. Together we made the film from the Navajo point of view. I feel blessed in many ways, particularly because I got to join in this family's struggle and help them reunite with a long lost brother. But even now it is hard for us to figure out what to do about the revelations of uranium contamination and the appalling health hazards that we put on screen. The Return of Navajo Boy has stunned people all over the world. It triggered a federal investigation of Navajo uranium houses. We found sponsors to help the Navajo family in the film travel with it to Washington DC and colleges nationwide. Their story continues at where viewers can watch webisodes and see how this groundswell leads toward environmental justice.

Jeff Spitz