Directed by Maria Florio & Victoria Mudd
August DVD Club
In 1974, Congress passed a law forcing 10,000 Navajo Indians to relocate from their ancestral land to depressing tract housing in the Arizona desert. They were given until 1986 to finish the task, and despite testimonials before Congress and pleas to reconsider, the forced move went ahead as scheduled, a process which did much to complete the destruction of a people’s tradition that had been underway for over a century. These are the dispassionate facts of the case — dry, even-handed, and honest — but they do not convey the murderous rage that festers in the breast of the viewer while succumbing to the all-too-familiar tally of the reasons behind the law. Indeed, the Navajo people just happened to occupy what amounts to some of the most valuable real estate in the country, despite having been sent there in the first place because it was thought to be worthless. Consider these numbers: Navajo land (a large swath near the Four Corners, primarily in Arizona) contained (as of 1985) 100 million barrels of oil, 25 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 80 billion tons of uranium, and 50 billion tons of coal. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing throughout the 20th century, hoodwinked tribal leaders, usually bribed by mining officials and lawmakers, signed unfavorable leases, which were subsequently broken and renegotiated at will, to strip families of land, erect barriers, and unleash poverty and disease in typically American fashion.
Broken Rainbow, narrated by Martin Sheen, tells this story inside the larger picture of greed and betrayal, most of which is familiar, but nonetheless powerful, given that the relocation is still an issue before Congress (Senate bill 1003 seeks to amend the 1974 law and bring the forced march to its conclusion). At this point, we’re used to the cold reality: Native Americans, as a group, are the poorest and least educated in the nation, and their plight is so depressing and dire that it almost seems reasonable to give up entirely. After all, consider that the Navajo only received 4% of the value for the coal on their land, 1.3% for the oil, 3.7% for the uranium, and 1.8% for the natural gas. If we recognize that eminent domain allows for the extraction of these properties for the benefit of all, we are also forced to admit that in no way were these people adequately compensated. Only a fool would believe that the resources should remain under the desert floor, but the Navajo should have gotten stinking rich off the deal. We would expect no less for some whiny suburbanite’s loss of hearth and home for a stretch of highway, right? But Native Americans remain the most neglected among us, and for many, I imagine they are viewed as museum relics and mere shadows that don’t quite exist in the modern world.
The story also brings us into the uranium mines of the Southwest, where hundreds of workers slaved away while breathing in toxic gases that led to lung cancer (with no compensation of any kind, of course). And Peabody Coal, that beneficent entity that sought only profit, helped contribute to widespread air pollution and water contamination, which resulted in rates of birth defects that are twice the national average. With power lines dotting the landscape, 75% of Navajos live without electricity, and Black Mesa, once a holy spot for the people, has been stripped, gutted, and left to fester as an open wound. And into the 1980s, the Department of the Interior, led by that model of tolerance and goodwill, Mr. James Watt, helped waive over a dozen environmental laws that allowed for additional uranium mines to be built, which then resulted in many makeshift homes being built out of radioactive rock (and more cancer). In every case I witnessed, there was no recourse, no concern, and not a single shred of decency that might have tempered the rush to extract with the belief that human beings, not inert objects, were being shifted around like chess pieces.
So while one is disgusted and outraged in equal measure, the documentary is far from the perfect chronicle. I can live with the one-sidedness, the self-righteous narration, and even the dated production values, but too often, naked sentiment crept into the picture and slightly undermined the power of the story. For example, some semi-coherent hippie chick kept finding her way onto the soundtrack with one of the most idiotic songs ever recorded. I caught only a few lyrics here and there, but it practically endorsed bear power and corny Indian legends that should have been shelved with F Troop. It made matters worse that the songs were matched with images of Navajo and Hopi Indians holding corn and tilling fields. It all seemed, well, disturbingly quaint and a bit paternalistic. And is it possible to make a documentary about Native Americans without upholding their myths and traditions as fact? Christianity is barbaric and silly, but no more so than sun gods and dirt spirits. About the time Sheen referred to “sacred centers” and “ for a time of 10,000 moons”, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes with despair.
The crime here is the failure to compensate the rightful owners of land for the material wealth found therein, not the disrespect of rites that date back thousands of years. There’s nothing noble about existing as one did centuries before, and I for one believe that only by acquiring the cash that is due them after decades of horrific treatment will Native tribes erase the demons of the past. Assimilation is a positive good, and acting as if living among goats and mud huts is “pure” is both condescending and racist. Yes, we stole Native land, forced them to move at gunpoint, moved them again when we found more shit we wanted, and moved them yet again when we tired of being reminded of what we’d done. So let’s pay through the nose, establish schools, hospitals, and businesses, and yes, even exempt them from taxation. Hell, maintain the sovereignty that is their due. But in 2006, appeals to the “ways of the ancestors” should ring on deaf ears; otherwise, we’re failing in our collective responsibility as a nation. The past, after all, is to be chronicled, respected, and remembered, not lived.