Navaho Boy Returned - please comment below



Film Review: The Return of Navajo Boy


Film Info


52 minutes



Official Sundance Film Festival 2000 selection, The Return of Navajo Boy, 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, Utah 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.


In 1997 a white man identifying himself as Bill Kennedy from Chicago showed up in Monument Valley with a silent film called "Navajo Boy" which he says his late father produced in the 1950s. Seeking to understand his father's work on the Navajo Reservation, Kennedy returns the film to the people in it. When Cly family matriarch, Elsie Mae Cly Begay, watches the film she is amused to see herself as a young girl and delights in identifying other members of her family. Elsie recognizes her late mother in the old film as well as her infant brother, John Wayne Cly, who was adopted by white missionaries in the 1950s and never heard from again.


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.


When the long lost brother, John Wayne Cly, learns about the return of "Navajo Boy" in a New Mexico newspaper, he contacts the Clys in hopes that they are his family. As he tells his side of the story The Return of Navajo Boy takes on a literal tone, setting in motion John Wayne's unforgettable return to his blood brothers and sisters in an emotional reunion in Monument Valley.


This unique Sundance Film Festival 2000 selection weaves together all the different threads of the Cly family story, narrated by Elsie's son Lorenzo Begay. Through this inside narrative of the Cly's inspirational saga, The Return of Navajo Boy gives new meaning to old pictures and performs a healing miracle of its own.

 Following the film, we will have a discussion on the following topics:


The Cly family voice


The Cly family feelings


The Cly family personal stories


Native Americans and the cinema


Human cost of uranium mining


The Cly family reunited (a healing miracle)


This film as a reflection of broader cultural phenomena





Please comment below....



[Heather Warren,, 9/27]


The Return of Navajo Boy


  1. This ethnography I think is definitely one of the better ones I have seen since the ethnographer included a lot of interviews with the people seen in Navajo Boy made contrasted with video clips from the time period and later with the stereotypical news-like voiceovers of narration. I especially like how they show the people identifying people and describing activities in the original movie Navajo Boy as well as pictures that were taken at the time.
  2. The perspective of those Navajo that were in other movies such as the famous westerns that were very prevalent in film in the 1950’s was also nice to hear as well as how the Navajo have adapted to modern society through weaving and making their jewelry, dream catchers, etc, as well as through leading tours. The Cly family, as portrayed in the movie, also does not seem to mind the increase of people from tours too much nor do they mind sharing their stories. Yet they still keep true to their beliefs and described some of them in the movie as well as express their upset that the younger generation does not know the old ways and thus, what they do now, they do to preserve the knowledge.
  3. I really thought it was ironic when Elsie commented, while in a store, “I wonder who made money on this? We are the ones in the pictures.” This comment, along with the information provided on uranium mining, makes a great impression on how the Navajo have been exploited. END



[Jonathon Baker,, 9/27]


The Return of Navajo Boy


1. As I said in class, I have been able to empathize emotionally much more with the Navajo than I was able to with the Inuit. Both this story and Laughing Boy made it very easy for me to connect to the Navajo on an emotional level. I thought the return of John Wayne Cly was very touching and I was very happy for both him and the family that they could be reunited. Regardless of cultural differences in kinship and family structure, you could really see that this family just cared about each other and loved each other just how a family does or tries to in our culture. As touching as the film was, it was a shame that the happy ending had to be overshadowed by the uranium mining issues.


2. When the film showed the John Wayne film being made, it was interesting at how stereotypical the Indians in the film were made to be. The Navajo were made to but on the large feather headdresses and, war paint, and have the teepees and fierceness of the Comanche. These traits are ones that I feel are the most universally recognizable as Indian, so I'm sure that is why they were used in the film. I guess the culture of the Navajo was not exiting enough or not interesting enough for Hollywood...


3. It always amazes me that the Navajo can grow crops in the region that they live in; that they can have corn as a staple in their diet when they live in one of the most arid regions of the country. How did they do it for so long? Even with modern technology we dont do any farming in that area. They must have done some great rain dances...I also agree with Heather, how sad to know that the Navajo's culture was exploited and that they never saw a penny of the profits from the pictures and postcards that were sold.



{Isobel Connors,, 9/27}


The Return of Navajo Boy


1. I was horrified to learn that, even after the government realized the dangers of uranium, they refused to offer the proper compensation to the mine victims and their families. It angers me that we are taught about all the injustices Indians suffered in the past, but ignore the injustices that still occur today. We still, whether consciously or unconsciously, ostracize these individuals and look at them more as specimens than actual people.


2. I enjoyed the film’s depiction of the Navajo women’s traditions. The women carting and weaving wool for their blankets, three generations working side by side, helped depict their close kin ties. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the narrator describing Navajo women as strong and independent. This may be because of their specified gender roles, in which the men and women have little contact throughout the day.

3. This film portrays the Navajo environment as a hot, arid region, permeated with uranium deposits that are harming the survival of Navajo families. The walls of their traditional homes are filled with uranium, and the children still play by abandoned uranium mines. Because all their water is obtained from one source, all the Navajo drink contaminated water, and wash their food with it.




[Elen De Oliveira,, 9/27]


The Return of Navajo Boy


1. We often have often questioned the realisticness of the ethnographic films we have seen, due to the fact that so often, filmers distort reality or structure scenes. This film in question, however, was very realistic and depicted the people the way that they were which the navajos of this generation were very thankful for. They were able to use the old photographs and the film as a method of looking back at themselves and their ancestors as well as a method of conserving the old traditions and customs which unfortunately were becoming lost.


2. The film as a whole really opened my eyes to the things that we take for granted in our own lives and culture. Seeing the work and hours they had to put in just to find water, even in the newer generations of navajo, really made me appreciate the life that I live where water can be found instantly. I also really admirethe power of their families. Seeing the reunion of the lost brother with his family was very emotional.


3. It was very disconcerting to realize that people, children included, were still living in areas highly dangerously exposed to Uranium. I also was very angry that they had never been told the dangers of working and living near the mines. Families were broken apart, people were injured and killed due to the poisoning of their systems and the government could not even find it in their heirts to compensate them.




[Adam Saunders,, 9/27]


“The Return of Navajo Boy” was a real eye opener in terms of the mistreatment of the Navajo people. These people already have been stripped of their original lands and placed in reservations had then been mislead into the mining of uranium. Despite how much they could have possibly been payed for this service by the US government those in charge new the health risks that were involved in mining such a dangerous mineral. It wasn’t until one of the eldest mothers contracted lung cancer and died in the hospital that the risks in mining uranium became apparent to the people. However, despite the ongoing talks by government officials saying that the area has been cleaned up and is safe to live traces of uranium can still be found in their drinking water. This is unacceptable. There are those who are trying to help though such as the UIAP (Uranium Impact Assessment Program) who are further trying to help the Navajo people and cleaning up the contaminated areas affected by the Uranium mines. For more information on the UIAP or if you’re interested in learning about their current activities and or donations please check their website at






[Dan Lilly,, 9/28]


1. Jonathon made a good point in the earlier post. The Native Americans from the Great Plains region dominate what most people think of when they think of these people, thus the teepees and feather headdresses and that stuff. Its a lot like the polar bear skin pants of the inuit.


2. The situation with the uranium mines is awful. Unforunately its just one example of how Native Americans are treated by our government.


3. The attitudes of the Navajo were very unique from our own. The shot from the "mall" was really interesting to see because the Navajo man was talking to the two high school barbies with a lot of respect for who they are and where they came from, and they were basically like, "we read bury my heart and wounded knee and wanted to see real live indians."






[Larkin Kimmerer,, 9/28]

1. This was a very powerful, emotional film because it magnified all of the injustices brought upon the Navajo by white culture, from the comment of "I wonder who made money on this? We are the ones in the pictures" to the removal of John Wayne from his family, to the uranium exposure. This happened to every single native culture in America.

2. It was mentioned that removal from the uranium exposure to another location would be a possibility. I wondered which is worse, to be forced to leave your ancestral homeland because of the government, or dying from uranium exposure because of the government?

3. I loved when John Wayne returned to his family because it emphasized the importance of kinship in Navajo culture. Even though he hadn't seen them in many many years and was completely removed from his culture, they accepted him and he accepted them back into his life without question.






(Cameron Mack,, 9/30)


Return Of Navajo Boy


1. The emotions that the Navajo brought forth was quite engaging. Personally, I am not accustom to seeing such reactions, so it was very refreshing to view such moving moments. It was much easier to empathize with the Navajo people, rather than the Inuits. Although, that was not difficult either. It is clear that kinship is very important to these people.

2. It was unfortunate to find out that the Navajo people were living in such troubling conditions. The idea that they were living with such dangerous levels of uranium around them and their developing children was quite disturbing. To think that our government is low enough to cheat people out of their land, and then to take it to another level of refusing to assist them. The situation seems too unfair to comprehend.

3. After viewing all the injustices pushed forth to the Navajo people, it was refreshing to see the return of John Wayne. As I previouly mentioned, it was uplifting to witness such raw and unscripted emotions. I can only imagine the amount of relief that his family felt. It was something that they truly deserved.




[Jennifer Ritzenthaler,, 10/2/07]


The Return of Navajo Boy


1. It was interesting to see the safety net created by the existing of family and kinship within the film. It helped them get through a lot of struggles.


2. The Navajo seemed fine in interacting with tourists and were happy to learn about others. This shows a great ability to forgive the harm done to them, or at least not to apply the harm done by some of one culture to the rest of the culture as well.


3. The “white people” treated the Navajo badly. Some would come in, film, and then leave; others took the family’s son away; and still others had the Navajo do uranium mining without informing them of the dangers or the uses for it.




[Skye Naslund,, 10-2-07]



“The Return of Navaho Boy”


1-The United States government had little respect for the natives. This is illustrated when the government didn’t tell the natives about the dangers of Uranium Mining. The government also refused to support the natives dying of lung cancer, blaming the cancer of the traditional tobacco of the Navaho. This lack of respect shows the governments attitudes toward natives and shows how bad they are treated.


2-The family in Navaho culture is just as close and intimate as our families. When John Wayne Cly was reintroduced to his family everyone was touched and there was a deep connection despite years of separation and having been raised in completely different situations.


3-I think going back to the people years after filming is a very interesting approach. It allows us to see the reaction of the people in ethnographies to the films themselves. This reaction helps us to understand the films and puts them into a greater context.





[Steph Aquilina,, 10/2]


Film: The Return of Navajo Boy


1. The environmental injustices that occurred against the Navajos, who were paid to mine uranium for the US government, were atrocious. Their hills were exploited without informing them that the uranium would be used for nuclear bombs and without warning that as this mineral filters into their drinking and washing water, it would likely harm or kill them. Moreover, when the Navajos were trying to get compensation for the illnesses they suffered, the US tried to blame their suffering on the ceremonial tobacco they smoked, perpetuating the cycle of injury.

2. Once exposed to images of their past, the older Navajo generation (that had been young in the movie) looked back nostalgically. They were thankful that the younger generation could experience at least visually the old Navajo ways that were preserved by the film. Most magical of all, the film’s exposure in America allowed the Navajo Boy (taken from the Navajos as a young baby) to realize his roots, venture back to his old village, and enter into the welcoming, overwhelmingly emotional arms of his older sister. As they admitted, these pictures changed their lives.

3. The Navajos’ sense of environment was a very important part of their cultural identity. Living in the “sand dunes around the rock formations,” these individuals had to walk very far to get water (even in modern times, the land necessitates a lot of time and energy to collect water). The Navajos see the land as their mother and the sun as their father, and believe that “the ancient ones” of their society put handprints on the rocks far above their ground – these beings are said to have had wings in order to have reached up that high, where they had a big house that is now gone.





[Dilek Canakci,, 10/04]


The Return of Navajo Boy by Bill Kennedy
I thought this film was very touching and helped me get really connected with the people who are living such hard lives.  
It definitely helped people focus on the problems that these people go through within our country. It is sad to see such important
people in such poor conditions, I think they deserve much more than the situation they are in, with no running water or better shelter
conditions. It was very important for the film maker to show the roles of women and their daily practices and it meant so much more when
the woman explained the purpose of her family’s actions as she watched the film.  It is nice to see that they are still positive
about their living conditions and continue to hold on to their culture tight as well as having many hopes for the future. It is also
very touching to see that such important places are named after great women, for example, the great rock named after the narrator’s
great grandmother.  It was very nice to see Bill Kennedy to touch these people’s lives and give them comfort for a change.



[Rebecca Coons,, 10/05]

Navaho Boy Returned


Right off the bat this movie reminded me of Rabbit Proof Fence in that the baby was just taken out of his culture without any regard to the affect it would have on the rest of the family. Especially since family dynamics are so significant to the Navaho. I'll admit it, I teared up a little at the end when he was hugging his older sister. For cultures without much in the way of material things, family is the best resource and comfort that anyone can have. I noticed this in Coba as well just the family being so close-knit and it really makes me envy everyone with a large family. The affects of Uranium exposure were shocking and at the same time not all that shocking that nobody is really working to solve the problems. Also not really surprising was the introduction of alcoholism into the film. With family so important to the Navaho, and being denied that comfort and closure for decades, it's enough to make anyone want to literally drown their sorrows. The best part was the reunion of John Wayne Cly with his family and I was reminded again of Rabbit Proof Fence, but I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone else so I'll just say that Navaho Boy Returned made me exceptionally happy and it was a very touching ending. -END-



[Lanh Nguyen, ltn2, 10/10]

Navaho Boy Returned

Cly family voice: Listening to the film was depressing and heart wrenching. They sounded as if everything in their lives went with the wind when John was taken away and their mother died. Their faces look lonely, desperate and sad.

Human cost of Uranium: Navajo uranium mines caused catastrophic deaths to families around it. Navajos were dying of lung disease and drinking out of contaminated water supplies. It’s appalling to hear that the government kept this fact a secret for so long. It makes us wonder what else is the government keeping quiet that could potentially be hazardous to us?

Cly family reunion: Watching this reunion was so intense. The way the sister cried reminded me of my mom when she found out that her brother died. I could feel for the family.




[Shamiran Warda,, 10/10]

Film: Navajo Boy Returned


1.    What I noticed after watching this film was how important family was to these people. The kinship was more like a safety net. It was very emotional to see how John Wayne Cly, at a young age was taken away from his family, and after years of living a life painted by the missionaries he returned home, where he was welcomed with open arms. I honestly knew how that family felt when their family was united once again because I had a similar experience. Sadly my older brother had to be left behind in our old country, and after 13 years of not seeing or knowing anything about him, he finally arrived to the states. Thus when seeing the sister holding her lost brother and crying brought back lots of memories for me.


2.    The uranium mining issues was another aspect I noticed that made this movie powerful. It was sad to see how the government did little to help these people out. I could never imagine knowing that young children were playing around abandoned uranium mines and do nothing to prevent it. I felt bad for these people because when the government did come in, nothing was shared with these native people for instance such as the water results; whether it was contaminated or not. In addition, to such exclusion, these natives were also never warned or taught about the dangers of uranium, especially when working in the mines.


3.    What I found interesting was how friendly these people were. I certainly would be upset if tour groups kept coming on my land whenever they felt like it; however it was apparent that it did not bother these Navajo people. As a matter of fact they enjoyed it because they loved interacting with others, such as seen when they were interacting with the customers that entered their stories. The Navajo wanted to learn as much from other cultures as others wanted to know about theirs and I found that very interesting. -END-



[Nicole Rothman,, 10/11]


Navajo Boy Returned

1.    It was interesting to learn that the Cly family used post cards to tell their family history.

2.    This film showed how important family is to this culture. The fact that John Wayne Cly was taken away when he was so young, yet his sister and family never forgot him. Not only that but more than forty years later, he is welcomed with open arms back into the family and community even though they had no clue who he really was and if he was even the right person.

3.    It’s sad to learn what the uranium mines did to this culture and community. Uranium ended up in the drinking water, causing much of the community to become ill. Even though the government tested the water the reaction was slow to non-existent. They also weren’t told that not only was the uranium harmful to them but it was being used to make atomic bombs and kill people.




[Laurie Sadofsky,, 10/13]

Film: The Return of Navajo Boy

1. Economics: Many of the photographers of the Navajo people in the 1950s and 60s made a ton of money. Despite all the money made, the Navajo people usually got next to nothing.

2. Politics: John Wayne Cly was taken from his family as a child by a white family.  The Navajo people had to removed from their land and put on a reservation and then stripped of all their rights, including the right to their own children.  The result of this indifference to people’s need for their family is the pain and suffering of Elsie Mae and her family as well as the personal hardships of John Wayne.  

3. Kinship: Elsie Mae’s brother said “I was lost but now I’m found” upon seeing the pictures of himself and his family.  Kennedy’s pictures allowed the Cly family to see the only pictures taken of their deceased ancestors.

4. Politics: The land the Navajo currently live on is near an old mine filled with extremely harmful chemicals.  Many of the Navajo people are currently suffering from cancer as a result of this exposure.  Elsie Mae’s brother said the mines are the source of his illnesses, though he was denied compensation because he has smoked tobacco for religious ceremonies in the past.  Talk about the government’s unfairness, misuse of funds and lack of cultural understanding.




[Lok Yung Yam,, 10/14]

Film: The Return of Navajo Boy


1. Kinship: Even though John Wayne Cly lived his entire life with whites, he still connected immediately to his real family and culture.


2. Economics: I thought the original Navajo Boy film exploited the Native Americans; they used them to make a movie that painted their culture as "exotic," and paid them little to nothing.


3. Social Change: Hopefully, the government will own up to its mistakes. With the uranium radiation, the area is unlivable. However, moving the Native Americans would take them away from their homeland. I honestly don't know what can be done now, but there has to be some sort of compensation.



[Anne Kim,, 10/16]


Navajo Boy Returned

        1.       I really enjoyed the film because it really showed the kinship between the people. As each person was giving his/her account, I realized how much they cherished their traditions and why they did.  I really felt the sorrow that the family felt when their youngest brother was taken away. This showed how important and strong the kinship is in their culture.

        2.       I noticed how the “white man” took away everything from the people of Navajo. The fact that they put them in harm by putting uranium in their water shows how uncaring and brutal they were to the Navajos. In addition, they completely dismissed the people that were sick by saying that they were sick due to their traditional practices.

        3.       When the Navajo boy returned, I felt joy and happiness along with the family. i was very pleased to found out that the Navajo boy had finally found his family and returned to them. The one question that I had was that whether or not taking the Navajo boy was a good idea or not because he did end up having a stable life with a family.






     Charlie Genao


  1. In regards to ethnography I think it was very realistic in the sense that it is not so exotic. After seeing the Navajo, the aftermath of colonialization is still very real to me and I see the similarities in other historical minority groups like African Americans. It was very moving when the reunion came.


 2. I dont understand why anybody would adopt a child then mistreat him and because of that the Navajo boy lost his culture but aleast he has an opportunity to claim it and to finally meet his real family. Thier economic system is very unique and it is the only thing that allows them to have contact with outsiders and Europeans. I felt bad when the Navajo boy didnt have any support from his adopted family and he said something about highschool. I remember thinking he didnt have any future goals for himself.


3. Like the African Americans their was no apology to this mistreatment and currently the pollutions and radioactive waste in the area has lead many of these people to become ill. I cant believe that the goverment lied to the Navajo when making them work in the mine knowing perfectly well that it was dangerous and to top it all the govt refuses to clean up the the waste so that they can aleast have a better quality of life.



[Kaitlyn Northrop,, 10/19]


1.) It was really upsetting to me that the government wanted the Navajo to be involved in the mining and everything, but they did not inform them that they were mining for uranium which could be used for bombs and could also be deadly.

2.) It also upset me that the miners became sick because of the mining and the government would not give them any claim money because it was said that they were already sick from the tobacco.  It was interesting that they used this film to gain show off the injustice.

3.) It was very intense when John Wayne was reintroduced to his family.  It was sad that he did not really make any connections to anyone in his life because it never felt right but as soon as he saw his family it seemed like an instant connection.  I thought this was really moving.




[Dan McConvey,, 10/23]



Navajo Boy Returned


ENVIRONMENT- I think that the influence of the Uranium mines on the Navajo people is a chilling reminder of how we have treated the Navajo people and Native Americans in general.  The long-term effects that these mines can have on these people should be a major concern to Americans.  The uranium is clearly making people sick on their own reservation.  The native people of our country should not live on “reserved” land that is uninhabitable in the first place.  It is frustrating that our media will broadcast news about a mysterious odor coming out of the ground in New York City but we will allow the native people of our land to live on unsafe land without a problem.  The people tried to have the government compensate the fact they’re land was completely exploited and the government tried to avoid taking responsibility.  


KINSHIP- The reunion, when Navajo boy actually returned to his family was moving.  Despite the fact that this separation went on for several years and that John Wayne Cly had been living with a white family, the family still held onto the hope of his return.  This reunion is also intensified through the medium of film because we are able to anticipate and experience the reunion visually and have a more emotional connection with what the people were feeling.


POLITICS- Continuing on the note of the uranium fields, this is another example of the United States’ political irresponsibility with the Navajo.  The people have suffered in several different ways in their history with the United States through Livestock Reduction programs to lack of full rights to this issue with the Uranium mines.  The United States government seems to treat the Navajo as though they are a non-issue despite our continued involvement in their suffering. 



[Geni Beninati,,  10/22]

Navajo Boy Returned



1) Family is clearly very important to the Navajo. The brother of Elsie Mae said "I was lost, but now I'm found" when he saw photos of him and his family.  Knowing that he had a family was very important to him.

2) I was very upset that the U.S. government made the Navajo become involved in mining, knowing it would be incredibly dangerous.  However, this is typical of the US Governments reaction to Native Americans.

3) The role of women was clealy illustrated in this film.




Alfred Dilluvio 10/22


I thought this film did a wonderful job showing the importance of family and one's cultural heritage. The fact that he interacted with those people as well as he did and considered them to be his family and hugged them and kissed them despite not knowing them at all was wonderful to watch. I dont think a film of this is the best idea though. A moment like that shouldnt be filmed unless the people in question want it to be.