Hillary Davis Sun Staff Reporter | Posted: Friday, June 11, 2010 5:10 am
Camille Manybeads Tso of Flagstaff is much too young to have ever known her great-great-great-grandmother, a warrior known as Yellow Woman.
But her family’s strong oral tradition has kept the 14-year-old connected, and her passion for filmmaking brought the esteemed ancestor to life in a way that has resonated around the world.
Camille began researching her family history last year for an eighth-grade project. She was thinking of making a five-minute short, but instead got a 26-minute docu-drama, “In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman.”
The project earned a screening at one film festival. Then another, and another. It brought home one award, then another and another. And it gained her admission to the prestigious Idyllwild Arts Academy, a selective boarding high school for gifted teens in the arts.
Film aficionados across the United States, in France and in Wales, Australia and Mexico, have picked up Camille’s story of Yellow Woman, a teenage mother of four who gutted out the grueling Navajo Long Walk forced relocation of 1864-68 with a baby in her belly and then on her back. She had been captured by the U.S. Cavalry and driven from her home on choice Four Corners-area land.
Yellow Woman survived the circuitous trek to and from Texas. Thousands did not.
Camille had heard the stories since she was small, and although they were interesting enough, they didn’t click until she started her project.
“If she hadn’t protected her family so well,” said Camille, a touch of awe in her voice, “I wouldn’t be here.”
A FAMILY PROJECT
Camille, who is homeschooled, got a project last year from her mother and teacher, Rachel, to interview her paternal grandmother about her life and times.
So Camille turned to grandmother Mae Wilson Tso and great-grandmother Blanche Manybeads Wilson. The conversations with her elders took an intense path when Grandma Mae took Camille behind her reservation home.
“She pointed to the ground,” Camille said. “‘Right here, this is where Great-Great-Grandmother Yellow Woman was shot.’”
The Navajo Long Walk is documented in written history, but Camille was compelled to tell her personal story. She recruited family members to help act, sing, make costumes, film and translate. As the director, Camille did the research, writing, editing and had the vision.
She and her crew traveled to the Four Corners area to film re-enactments. Camille was Yellow Woman. Her 2-year-old sister BahozHoni was Jenny Manybeads, the baby Yellow Woman carried on her trek and who became Camille’s great-great grandmother (Blanche’s mother, Mae’s grandmother and great-grandmother to Camille’s father Francis).
Camille was struck at how relatively recent Yellow Woman’s ordeal was — less than 150 years ago — and how she survived it as a girl not much older than Camille, who leads a modern teenage life.
AND THE HORSES, TOO
Even just an outline of Yellow Woman’s ordeal is compelling. Cavalrymen came to her village near Black Mesa and rounded up who they could catch. Husband Yellow Man and their three older children found a hiding spot near Hotevilla. The very pregnant Yellow Woman couldn’t move very fast, so she decided to be a decoy, leading the cavalry away from her people.
She was a popular woman, as a hero to the Navajos and a criminal to the cavalry — stories tell of Yellow Woman killing a few of the soldiers with her knife. A soldier shot her in the belly, but it was a flesh wound that she treated with medicinal herbs under a tightened sash belt.
Yellow Woman walked for three months to Fort Sumner on the New Mexico-Texas border, lived in a harsh internment camp for about a year and a half, and then walked back to Arizona with Jenny. She reunited with her family and lived to a ripe old age.
Camille concedes that oral histories can get embellished, but she trusts her family — Great-Grandma Blanche, who died in February at 96 to 100 years old (official records are spotty), knew Yellow Woman first-hand. The account doesn’t vary.
And there’s one detail that Camille said gave the story credibility: Yellow Woman was said to ride an albino horse, which had offspring.
“It’s actually true, because we have three albino horses at our house,” Camille said.
“In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman” is far from Camille’s first film. She made her directorial debut at age 9.
Around that time, she was an extra in the Steven Spielberg miniseries “Into the West” and the big professional equipment fascinated her. That interest was fostered by her uncle, Klee Benally, an activist, filmmaker, and all-around performer and artist who had just started Outta Your Backpack Media, a Flagstaff-based collective for young, indigenous filmmakers that encourages “media justice and media literacy.”
Camille will make more movies next year at Idyllwild Arts Academy in southern California. Ultimately, she’d like to be an attorney specializing in environmental justice and human rights and keep up her film interests.
Outta Your Backpack Media students are encouraged to enter their films into juried festivals, so she did. But the success has surprised her, and still does, in a “Who, me?” way.
On Thursday, she got word that the movie had been accepted into the San Antonio Film Festival, its 25th festival.
Camille is born of the Jewish people and for the Water Flowing Together Clan. Her cheii is Scottish. Her nalí is Apache.
Her film brought her closer to her Navajo roots. Her family loved the film and encourages her to preserve more of their stories. She has formed Halne’e (Storyteller) Productions to do so.
One of the projects knocking around her head now is another powerful story of a matriarch’s survival: her maternal German great-grandmother, who fled the Holocaust and stowed away to America on a ship — in an apple barrel.
Here are some festivals and acclaim for “Yellow Woman:”
— Cowichan Aboriginal Film Festival (Best Youth Film of the Year)
— Lake Arrowhead Film Festival (Special Student Recognition)
— Eckerd Film Festival (Most Innovative Short)
— Red Nation Film Festival (Best Documentary Short)
— Southeastern Native American Indian Film and Video Festival (Best Student Dramatic Short)
— International Cherokee Film Festival (Best Student Docu-Drama)
— 25 festival invitations overall