Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

September 13, 2021

In Memoriam Navajo Filmmaker Bennie Klain


Photos courtesy 'Return of Navajo Boy'

In memory of Dine' filmmaker Bennie Klain, who has passed to the Spirit World, I am  republishing this article I wrote when Bennie screened 'The Return of Navajo Boy,' in Tucson in April of 2000, revealing the power of his film, the tragedies to loss and how Bennie's film brought about reunion. 

“The Return of Navajo Boy,” voicing the secrets of silence

Exploitation by filmmakers, missionaries and atomic bomb industry

By Brenda Norrell
April 2000

MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah – John Wayne and John Ford were not around when Happy Cly – the most photographed Navajo woman in the 1950s – died from lung disease from uranium mining.

John Wayne and John Ford were long gone when the Cly family mourned for 40 years the loss of their beloved two-year-old boy taken away by white missionaries.

Now, documentary film co-producers Jeff Spitz and Bennie Klain, Navajo from Tonalea, tell the rest of the story.

“The Return of Navajo Boy,” tells of the exploitation of Navajos by photographers and filmmakers, and of the Cold War secrets yielding cold silence today.

While photographers and filmmakers exploited Navajos for fame and wealth, the federal government and energy corporations used Navajos as human guinea pigs -- unprotected from radiation -- to mine uranium to produce the atomic bomb.

“I never thought that pictures could change anyone’s life, but that was before ‘The Return of Navajo Boy,’” says film narrator Lorenzo Begay.

The film begins in Monument Valley along the Arizona and Utah border on the Navajo Nation.

Bill Kennedy is returning film footage taken by his father Robert J. Kennedy here in the 1950s.

After nearly half a century, Jimmy Cly sees himself for the first time on film, as a young boy riding a donkey in the silent film footage.

Seated in his hogan, Jimmy remembers when he was a young boy crying in the heat and “earning only about 25 cents.”

While the Cly family was photographed and filmed every day during those years by tourists and movie producers, Happy and her daughter were dying. The water they drank and bathed in was contaminated from uranium mining.

John Wayne Cly, given his name by actor John Wayne, was taken by white missionaries when his mother and grandmother died. They promised to bring him back when he was six, but never returned.

While John Wayne the actor spent his life reaping the benefits of the cowboy and Indian westerns filmed here, John Wayne Cly the Navajo spent his life in loss and desperation in a white missionary home in New Mexico.

John Wayne Cly sat by the freeway, hoping his family, or even John Wayne himself, would pass by.

The little boy said to himself, “John Wayne take me back because you’re the only guy that knows the way back home.”

In the end, it was the photographs and films that brought the Cly family together again after 40 years. John Wayne Cly, married and living in Zuni Pueblo, read about the film in a local newspaper and knew the names of his grandparents Happy andWillie Cly.

When he is reunited with sister Elsie Mae Cly Begay in the film, audiences shed tears with them.

At the Tucson International Film Festival, John Wayne Cly stands with his sister Elsie Mae. “The search is over. The loneliness and empty feeling are gone,” he says.

“It was like I was lost.”

Elsie Mae cries when she remembers her baby brother being taken away. She prayed every morning for 40 years for his return.

Now, wiping away her tears, she thanks the filmmakers.

“If they had not come back, my younger brother wouldn’t be here.”

In the film, Elsie Mae pumps her drinking water and hauls it home in a barrel in the back of a pickup truck. Then, at the store, she looks at her family’s photographs on video cases and postcards.

“I wonder how much money they got?” she asks looking at the cover of “The Searchers” video, and postcards taken of her family in the 1940s and 1950s.

“The Return of Navajo Boy” not only changed the lives of the Cly family, but it changed forever the life of Navajo co-producer Bennie Klain.

Klain was a Navajo journalist on Navajo radio station KTNN when he interviewed Elsie Mae about the film project. Later, he drove to Chicago to work with Spitz and provided the Navajo-English translation for the film subtitles.

Finally, Klain enrolled in radio and television at the University of Texas—Austin, where he is focused on becoming a filmmaker.

Klain said it was great to be at the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival 2000. But, the most exciting moments are now at screenings in Window Rock, Tuba City and Tucson, Ariz.

“My top consideration was: How are Navajos going to think about this. How are they going to react to this,” Klain told the Tucson film festival in April of 2000.

During the film discussion, Navajos in the audience said it was the heart-felt expressions by the Cly family in the Dine’ language that moved them so deeply.

Klain said, “It is a tribute to the voices of this one family.”

There is another voice in the film, the voice of uranium mining in the mid-Twentieth Century. The narrator of the Kerr-McGee Oil Industry Promotional Film is describing the Navajo people.

“Their hearts are as big as the area in which they live.”

Elsie Mae’s son Lorenzo speaks another truth from the heart as he narrates.

“The mining company did not tell our father or mother that uranium could kill them, or it would be used to make the atomic bomb.”

Spitz said since the film’s release, news reporters have pressed the Environmental Protection Agency to release the findings of the EPA’s 1997 study. Navajos want to know whether their drinking water in Monument Valley is free from radiation.

But there has been no response.

Lorenzo says in the film, “The government came here a few years ago to check the safety of our drinking water, but they never came back.”

Bernie Cly also tells his story of mining uranium. Most of one of his lung’s was removed in surgery, yet the federal government denied him radiation exposure compensation. The government claims it was mountain tobacco, smoked during traditional ceremonies, that led to his lung disease.

Bernie says that even traditional Navajo ceremonies are used against the Dine’.

The postscript shares a final message: --Proceeds from the sale of the film will return to the Cly family.

At the first Uranium Film Festival in Brazil in 2011, "The Return of Navajo Boy" USA, 2008, was one of eight best films of the 1st International Festival of Films on Nuclear Energy in Rio de Janeiro.

Article copyright Brenda Norrell

Watch trailer for 'Columbus Day Legacy'
Honoring the films of Dine' filmmaker Bennie Klain, we remember the Columbus Day protests in Denver. Watch the trailer for Bennie Klain's 'Columbus Day Legacy.' In memory of Bennie, who ran ahead of his time and passed too soon. -- Censored News.


In Memoriam:
Navajo Filmmaker Bennie Klain
By Trickster Films

Acclaimed Navajo filmmaker Bennie Klain, Honágháahnii (One Walks around Clan) born for Táchii’nii (Red Running into the Water Clan), left this world to continue his journey on September 9, 2021. He was from Tó Nehelį́į́h (Red Lake/Tonalea, AZ) on the Navajo Nation.

Klain was a Navajo artist in a film world dominated by non-Natives, a role that he took on with spunk, drive, and a strong voice. “As a Navajo filmmaker, I have an acute awareness that my narrative, technical, and artistic decisions have vital implications, especially as my stories concern Native American representations and histories. Ultimately, responsibility for honest representation lies with the director.

This requires trusting your voice. The projects I undertake engage the challenging task of bridging Native concerns and social commentary with broader artistic and audience considerations.” When he could, he was always willing to help his Diné filmmaking community as a mentor or an extra pair of hands.

Among his many movie credits, Bennie was director of the award-winning documentary Weaving Worlds, a film that sheds light on past and current dilemmas confronting Navajo weavers, their arts and their culture.

Weaving Worlds was unique as a major documentary film in its embrace of the Navajo language and Navajo perspectives. It was co-produced by his production company TricksterFilms, with Vision Maker Media and ITVS. The film premiered at the 2007 SXSW Film Festival and had its broadcast premiere on American Public Television in 2008.

Weaving Worlds won numerous awards, including Best Documentary Feature at the Black Hills Film Festival (2010), an Award of Commendation from the American Anthropological Association (2008), a Special Commendation from the Royal Anthropological Institute (2011), and the Deuxieme Prix de Rigoberta Menchu for social justices films at the Montreal First People’s Festival (2007). The film was also a nominee for Best Documentary Feature at the Native American Film Festival in San Francisco (2008) and the ImagineNative Film Festival in Toronto (2007).

Weaving Worlds was transformative for Klain. As he told it, “My reluctance to acknowledge the cultural value of my own Navajo background is something I struggled with in the documentary Weaving Worlds. I learned that embracing myself and my language only increased my potential as a storyteller, celebrating our collective ideals and values through this unique medium and offering insights into our shared humanity.”Bennie also directed the documentary film Columbus Day Legacy, a look at race, history, and what it means to be an “American” through the lens of the ongoing Columbus Day parade controversy in Denver, CO.

Columbus Day Legacy was co-produced by Vision Maker Media and premiered on public television stations in 2011 by the National Educational Television Association (NETA). The film won Best Documentary Short at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco and was nominated for the “Big Sky Award” at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival (2011). Columbus Day Legacy was also awarded Best in Show in the Classification X Film category at the 2011 Santa Fe Indian Market and won a Special jury Prize for Bridging Cultures at the Arizona International Film Festival.

Bennie also co-produced and directed Share the Wealth, an 8 minute, 35 millimeter experimental narrative that situates a homeless Native American woman on a busy street corner. Share the Wealth premiered at the 2006 Smithsonian Native Film + Video Festival in New York City and aired on the PBS series “The Territory.”

Bennie was the founding partner of Austin, Texas-based production company TricksterFilms and was an avid marathon runner for years, traveling the country to compete. Before earning his BS degree in Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin, Bennie was an Associated Press award winner for his Navajo language newscasts with KTNN Radio on the Navajo Nation, and he premiered two films at the Sundance Film Festival.

The first was in 2000 as co-producer of the acclaimed activist documentary The Return of Navajo Boy, and the second was in 2002 as writer/producer/director of the narrative short Yada Yada that views the events of September 11. 2001 from a Native perspective. From 2002-2006, Bennie was the Native Programming Liaison for the annual Ciné las Américas film festival in Austin. He was a 2004 and 2008 nominee for the prestigious Rockefeller Media Fund Fellowship, a 2008 nominee for the USA Fellowship, a 2011 Native Arts & Cultures Foundation Fellow, and a Sundance Institute Fellow for multiple years.

A memorial service is being planned. In lieu of flowers, a GoFundMe campaign has been set up to assist the family with expenses.
Further Photos/Production Stills upon Request (3 safe attached jpgs)

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