Standing defiantly at the door of her ramshackle hut, Katherine Smith, a 67-year-old Navajo elder, gripped the stock of her decrepit rifle, a determined look hardening her lined face.
Smith says she will not be moved from her ancestors' traditional lands, and her fierce looks second her words. But the federal government is in the process of relocating more than 10,000 Navajos in a move aimed toward righting an alleged 104-year-old territorial wrong to the neighboring Hopi Indians--and Navajos such as Smith will have to move to federally purchased homes elsewhere.
This forced diaspora is the focus of "Broken Rainbow," an Oscar-nominated feature-length documentary being shown at the Los Feliz Theater in Los Angeles Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. through March 23. The film, according to co-producer/director Victoria Mudd, is an attempt to "help people get the whole picture" of the relocation issue.
"I was very skeptical about the wrongs that were being done by our government to the Navajos--after all, I come from a solid Republican family," said Mudd from her home/headquarters in Malibu. "It took me a long time to become convinced that this was very wrong. I saw the people's faces on Big Mountain (in the middle of the disputed territory, where Smith and other traditional Navajos live) and I was convinced. I had to do something."
The territorial dispute that sparked the federal action goes back to an executive order, signed in 1882 by President Chester A. Arthur, which inscribed a reservation for the Hopi within the borders of the huge Navajo reservation, near the Four Corners area of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
But the order was loosely worded: It allowed Native Americans other than the Hopi to reside in their reservation. And it was also, Mudd said, beside the point; Navajo and Hopi had lived "side by side in peace for over 100 years."
"The point is, there never was any dispute between the two peoples," Mudd insisted. "The traditional Hopi leaders--not the ones in the Hopi Tribal Council, but the real leaders--never insisted the Navajo get off their land. It was just that the Hopi reservation happens to sit on top of enormous energy reserves, which various forces would be happy to extract. The people who live there just have to be moved first."
While taking pains to clarify the historical/political muddle, "Broken Rainbow" spends most of its 68 minutes exploring the trauma such a relocation instills in such a deeply rooted people as the Navajo. Mudd said her subjects identify themselves as much with the land--and the personal history that land evokes--as with anything else.
"These people are caretakers of the Earth; they feel no human can truly own the land, only take care of it," she said. "That's why this so-called dispute is so absurd--and that's what Maria (Florio, the film's co-producer) and I wanted to get across in the film."
Both Mudd and Florio insisted that "Broken Rainbow" be described as a "team project."
Mudd, a former anthropology student and VISTA volunteer, freely admitted she'd had precious little film-making experience before "Broken Rainbow," though she'd attended the American Film Institute's Directors Program. She did add, though, that Malibu neighbors and friends--such as Ali MacGraw and Burgess Meredith--and concerned strangers, such as Martin Sheen, singer/songwriter Laura Nyro and singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, pitched in to add their professional touches.
"Still, at the beginning, the film was a tremendous struggle," Mudd said. "I wasn't getting the look I wanted, the visual thrust. Maria really knew how to simplify things, how to make an image tell. I learned a lot from her and from the process."
Florio herself, a graphic designer and former National Geographic photographer, was more modest.
"I helped put a little poetry into the film," she said. "Once we got through the mistrust of these people, all I did was to infuse a little art into the harsh political light the whole film was casting on the subject. The Native Americans are due a little poetry--they're the greatest natural poets on the face of the Earth."
Still, one struggle remained: How do you market and distribute a politically angry documentary, Academy Award nomination or not?
Florio was hopeful for the film's future. "I think taking this film to the commercial arena is going to take very little, because so much spirit has been invested in it--it's as if the Great Spirit itself is rooting for us."
"We're trying to distribute it ourselves--it's taking everything we've got," Mudd said. "Yet through all this hassle we're presently going though ("Broken Rainbow" still lacks a theatrical distributor), I'd definitely make another film. We both really learned about making your visions come true, and the academy nomination will certainly help the cause. But Maria says, 'Next time, a comedy.' "