For my thesis project, I documented my home-schooled eighth grade daughter’s place-based media arts project, that resulted in her multi-award winning film, In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman. Camille had done this type of project before, as a student in one of my STAR school classes that produced the Tolchaco project, and she had learned to make films through being involved with Outta Your Backpack Media, an indigenous youth-led media literacy collective. Since she already had experience with doing this type of project and knew how fun they could be, she jumped at the opportunity to do one as her final project.
The initial assignment I gave Camille was to interview an elder in her community to learn place-based oral history. She was to show me what she learned through a creative media arts project. This was an adaptation of a junior-high place-based social studies exercise of learning community history that I had assigned to students before. For this project students collect oral histories by interviewing either their own family or that of someone in their community about their own history. The final outcome of the assignment is typically an essay and a group timeline, however for this project I wanted to show how using Media Arts the student can make history truly come alive. I filmed each step of the process that resulted in Camille’s film, In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman, then created a 26 minute thesis film, The Making of Yellow Woman: A Demonstration Project of Place-Based Media Arts as an accompaniment to my written work.
Camille was born when we were living with her paternal grandparents in the midst of the Navajo - Hopi disputed lands of Black Mesa in North Eastern Arizona. We lived in a dirt floored hogan without electricity or running water, sharing one kitchen with sixteen others in our family. In the first few years of her life Camille grew up immersed in Dine’ (Navajo) culture. Dine’ was her first language, blue corn mush her first food, and her whole community was her extended family. Nevertheless, the economic and political circumstances of life there made it impossible to have a house of our own or reliable employment. So, as is so common with families of our generation, we found ourselves leaving the reservation to look for work.
After our daughter’s first day of preschool in town, Camille came home and announced in perfect English, “I do not speak Navajo anymore.” We thought it was just her way of adjusting to the new environment, but she kept true to her word and in a few years it was clear she had lost most of her Dine’ language skills. As time went on, we visited our home community less and less, and Camille adopted more and more of the mainstream societal norms she was being exposed to in town. At the time of this project she had lost most of her first language, which prevented her from benefiting from the traditional intergenerational transmission of knowledge from her grandmother. She was even losing out on learning many of her cultural traditions directly from her father, because he was busy working, and going to school; those lessons got lost in the every day shuffle. However, this project quickly began to prove to be a vehicle for getting some of that back.
When Camille asked her grandmother, Mae Tso, to be interviewed and she agreed, I saw that Camille was reaching out to re-establish that intergenerational relationship. Using her father as an interpreter she taped an interview with her grandmother. Mae shared some fantastic stories about her life growing up and the way things had changed. But when she took Camille outside to show her the spot where her own great-grandmother, Yellow Woman was shot by the blue coats, the stories became fiercely interesting to Camille.
Yellow Woman was a warrior who courageously protected her family from the Blue Coats. One story told of Yellow Woman as a newly-delivered mother who spotted a group of Blue Coats heading towards an encampment of her elders and children. She tied the newborn baby into a cradleboard and tied it inside a tree. She then took off on horseback and managed to goad the Blue Coats into following her, leading them into a winding canyon where she hid; doubling back in time to warn her family to hide and to return to her newborn baby, still asleep in her cradleboard in the tree.
Learning these stories had a profound effect on Camille. Not only did she learn about actual events from history, but also she was able to make that history personal. This is what her great- great- great-grandmother did in order to protect her family, to protect the next generations, to protect her. I could see Camille processing this as she walked along the same trail that was used for the Long Walk. The strength of Yellow Woman also resonated well with Camille and through the project I witnessed Camille incorporating that strength into her own views of herself.
Next, Camille learned how to do an investigative research project. She researched all elements around the Long Walk, from the clothing Yellow Woman and the blue coats would have worn to what they ate and what they would have used as medicine. We visited many libraries, checked out books, did internet searches, visited museums, and gathered more stories from other families. Camille interviewed her grandmother several more times and began to spend more and more time out on the land.
On one of these trips Camille asked us to leave her there for a month so she could help take care of her great-grandmother, whom her grandmother was caring for. She willingly gave up her usual appendages of an ipod and a cell phone, and even the big event of a New Years party downtown. When her Dad drove out to pick her up he found her comfortably living a traditional lifestyle with her grandmothers, learning, communicating, and most importantly loving. The intergenerational bridge was refortified.
In Language Arts, Camille studied plays and then movie scripts. She took the stories her grandmother gave her and re-imagined them into a nearly thirty-page script. For art class, Camille created the storyboards for the film and made the costumes. For some of her science lessons Camille studied ethno-botany with her grandmother, her father, and a local ethno-botanist, so she could learn about what types of foods and medicines Yellow Woman used. We even got a little math involved in calculating the distances traveled by the prisoners on the Long Walk and how long it took. She also learned some very valuable organizational skills including how to make call sheets, delegate tasks, and make sure everyone and everything was where it was supposed to be when we went out to film.
She asked her cousins if they wanted to get involved and help with the project. She cast mostly by asking who wanted to do what, but she had a hard time filling the male roles or getting her teen-aged boy cousins to be in front of the camera at all. However, they were great at behind the scenes work. Her older cousin Ian agreed to be the director of photography for all of the narrative scenes, since Camille wanted to play the part of Yellow Woman. The project grew to include more family and more details of Yellow Woman’s life came out with nearly every conversation.
We also spent a lot of time discussing the big issues involved, about reclaiming oral histories, sustaining traditions and communities, the cultural commons, manifest destiny, and a lot on media literacy, bias and propaganda. Teaching media literacy while we were making media helped Camille and her cousins to navigate through the consumer culture of corporate sponsored media. As Camille says, it taught her what the media was trying to tell her, and what they were trying to sell her.
Almost all of the scenes were filmed in the actual locations where the events took place. There were just a few locations we could not manage, we couldn’t drive to the Rio Grande, nor Bosque Redondo due to the distance. However, all of the local scenes were shot as close to the real place as possible. As we were visiting the sites to shoot, Camille’s grandmother would accompany us and teach her grandchildren the history of the place; and they were interested. I noticed one of Camille's cousins intensely feeling the rocks of the home her ancestor once lived in. I could see the effect of empowerment that knowing the historical memory of place can bring.
Several times throughout the project it seemed destined that this film be made. My favorite example is the story of how the man who played the Cavalry soldier appeared. Camille had a hard time finding someone who could fit the look of the cavalry man and would be willing to come all the way out to her grandmother’s and play the “bad guy.” After nearly everyone she could think of to ask said no, a cousin's friend agreed to do it. She fitted him for a costume and made plans to meet him at the filming location. But when she arrived for the shoot she was informed that the friend backed out at the last minute. Here they were, two and a half hours away from town with costumes, horses, and plans to shoot the cavalry scenes, but no actor to play the soldier. Camille instantly began brainstorming how to attempt to make her cousin possibly look like a cavalry man when she saw a vehicle approaching. We were in a very remote area, vehicular traffic was sparse at best, but an unfamiliar vehicle driven by a complete stranger coming straight at us was down right peculiar. Out of the vehicle stepped an anglo man in his late twenties who looked perfect for the role, blue-eyed, weathered skin, even the perfect size for the costume. He said he wanted to learn about Navajo life-ways and was driving around looking for someone who would be willing to teach him. Camille was quick to ask, “Can you ride a horse?” The next thing we know, this amazing horseman, actor, and gentle soul, who happened to fit the costume perfectly, was staying with us for several days playing the role of the cavalry soldier.
Up to the filming, I played a critical role in looking over and guiding her through all the steps. She had already learned production from the volunteer youth-led media literacy collective, Outta Your Backpack Media, so she did not need my guidance during the filming and didn’t want it either. She was very determined to make sure this was her project, done her way. Being the daughter of a Drama teacher and having been in several professional productions, commercials, and even having experience as an extra in Steven Spielberg’s Into the West, she wanted to prove she knew what she was doing in terms of production and directing. Every once in a while I was able to tag along to film some of what they were doing when I wasn't working as the production's caterer.
They filmed over a series of four weekends and then she started on post-production. In post, Camille really learned how to close the digital divide, conquering the multiple and inevitable tech issues. Through it we both learned how to problem solve tech issues and became much better editors and more familiar with the professional standard of editing software, Final Cut Pro. Camille did a rough cut and I gave her a final grade, but she would not stop working on the project. It had come to be a very deep and meaningful project to her that she was attached to. She wanted to edit it into a piece that she hoped would make not only her Grandmother proud, but “make Yellow Woman proud.” She edited and did other post-production work for nearly three more months after she had received her grade.
The project became very significant for her, it was no longer a school project it was a life project and it was about her, her family, her place, where she comes from. It became powerfully personal and she was not going to give it up until she got it to a place she could be proud of. When Camille wrote that story into a screenplay, she was intensely engaging with the subject matter. She filmed her stories in the actual canyons these events took place and she played the role of Yellow Woman herself, fully imagining her ancestors thoughts, fears, challenges and hopes. Through the performance she began to internalize this historical event, to feel as her ancestor felt.
In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman has been accepted into over ninety film festivals and has won multiple awards. It has screened all over the world, and in nearly every continent. Her film also helped her to pursue her dream of studying film at a prestigious boarding school, where she went for high school, studying on scholarship. Through showing her completed piece Camille has educated others about Yellow Woman and the Long Walk; giving rise to the opportunity for her peers and others to be able to understand this unique indigenous worldview. It has created a bridge, a connection, for others to recognize the validity and beauty in that worldview.
This experience has also opened up an amazing connection between Camille and her grandmother. Through being asked to tell stories, Mae has felt encouraged to share more with her granddaughter and has asked for her to come stay with her more often, learning not only the traditional way of life, but relearning Dine’ language. This has been an invaluable experience for all of us.
The strengths of Place Based Media Arts Project, such as this one are not just in the skills Camille and her cousins acquired. It is in the relationships that have been forged, the re-establishing of intergenerational bonds, the power of becoming reconnected with family history and cultural ties. It is in the pride she came to have in her self, her community and her heritage. There is a strength that lies in the knowing of from where and from whom one comes from.
This project emphasized community cooperation over competitive individualism. It strengthened intergenerational relationships and created a vehicle for the intergenerational transmission of knowledge. This project made history come alive at the intersection of traditional storytelling, heritage, cultural traditions, and that of new technologies. It regenerates and sustains communities. It is one example of how we can re-engage our students in not just learning but in regenerating and sustaining our communities.