Canyon de Chelly, located on the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, was once home to the Ancient Puebloans, who lived in the area for thousands of years and built sophisticated homes in alcoves tucked under the cliff walls.
In the winter of 1864, during a systematic campaign to force the Navajo people off their land, the U.S. military faced off against a holdout of Navajo people in Canyon de Chelly. The Navajo tried to escape by scaling the steep walls, but most were taken prisoner and forced to march 300 miles out of the canyon in a deep and bitter cold. The traumatic event is known in Navajo history as the “Long Walk.”
The Draper family is descended from participants in the Long Walk and eventually returned to the canyon. Today, young Tonisha Draper and her little sister, Tonielle, are learning Navajo traditions from their father. This short film follows Tonisha, Toneil and their family as they reclaim their Navajo history and reconnect with ancestors within the canyon walls.
This sympathetic, lyrical portrait of a self-described “Navajo lady sheepherder” details a solitary life on the reservation. A survivor of spousal abuse that occurred when she left the reservation as a young woman, Irene Bennalley has returned to her childhood home, where she has recovered her psychological and physical health.
She survives — despite isolation exacerbated by estrangement from jealous siblings, despite inhabiting land degraded by historic and ongoing overgrazing, and despite living in a ramshackle house. “I just kind of walked away the pain,” Bennalley says, reflecting on the difficult journey that’s brought her to a state of grace. First-time director Cat Cannon made Irene with support from a Mountainfilm Commitment Grant awarded in 2014.
Even remote Ladakh in the Indian Himalaya hasn’t escaped modernity, represented by jets overhead, computers, tourists and cultural homogenization. Morup Namgyal has made it his life’s mission to preserve at least one essential part of Ladak’s traditional Buddhist culture: the folk songs.
As part of his effort, Namgyal was a founder of the Lamdon School which, years later, has become a flourishing institution of education and cultural preservation. The Song Collector is suffused with archival footage and the nostalgia of an indigenous culture experiencing the erosion of not just of its music, but of its style of dress, ceremonies, language and, even, Morup says, “our good way of thinking, our manner of conversion, our bonds with each other.”
Yet Namgyal has come to understand that while progress can’t be denied, culture can be sustained with conscious effort. Erik Koto’s first feature-length film bestows recognition on a Ladakhi icon who has instilled cultural self-awareness among his people, and the film itself is part of the inspiring movement.