San Francisco Peaks



Film offers youth hope in today's struggle to survive

By Annie Greenberg

Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK - It's a balancing act for most Native children these days, as they try to straddle their traditional culture and the modern world without forsaking either.  So filmmaker Mia Boccella Hartle decided to help fill in the gap with her latest documentary, "When Your Hands Are Tied", which focused on how Native youth are blending the contemporary and traditional to create a place in cultural history to call their own.

The film premiered on Kid's Day, Sept. 7, at the Navajo Nation Fair, and was introduced by President Joe Shirley Jr. and first lady Vikki Shirley. According to Hartle, the idea of a movie that would provide Native youth with an accurate reflection of themselves, untainted by Hollywood stereotypes, has been brewing in her head for almost five years.

Alray Nelson, the Navajo Nation youth ambassador, lauded her efforts."This film inspires you to move forward in this journey called life and to live it with dignity, honor, and respect knowing you are an American Indian," Nelson said in a press release from the president's office. "From leadership to culture, this film will motivate hundreds and perhaps millions of Native youth across this great country."

"When Your Hands Are Tied" features Native Americans from across thecountry, who told their stories about struggling to maintain a cultural identity in a time when Native language and tradition seem to be drowning in waves of drugs, alcohol and indifference.

It was funded by Chris Hennessy of the Harber Charitable Foundation based in London, England, who saw the potential of the film when first speaking about it with Hartle five years ago. "I doubt if there's been a minute it's not been in Mia's head, and I feel the same way," said Hennessy. "Though the project was for Native Indian people, the issues about kids being bored are issues found allover the world."

Jessica Atsye, 14, Laguna Pueblo/Navajo, was among those interviewed in the film. She said that for a while she was a bully, getting in trouble both at home and at school.  But through a combination of running track and field and participating in traditional dances, she has changed herself for the better. Her mother, Rebecca Touchin, said the most difficult part was sustaining their culture. "With Jessica, what is hard is to keep the tradition alive and keep the faith alive, because there are so many kids now who don't want to stay with tradition."Touchin continued, "But even with kids wanting their Nikes and designer clothes, what is most important is that you have your moccasins, your jewelry, and your traditional clothing."Her daughter had this lesson to share:"By being in this movie, I wanted to tell younger children not to let the past affect the future," Atsye said. "I learned that for myself."

That sentiment was echoed throughout the film, with former Miss Navajo Nation Radmilla Cody (1997-98) reflecting on her own tumultuous past.  After her reign, she became involved with a notorious drug dealer. When he was eventually arrested she was arrested as well, due to her knowledge of his crimes. In 2002 she was sentenced to serve 21 months in prison.  But by turning to traditional singing and songwriting, she said, she was able to survive her fall from grace and emerge stronger for it. The film's co-producer Marley Shebala, a Navajo Times reporter, emphasized the importance of Cody's involvement.  "We asked Radmilla to be a part of this film to try to relate to how kids look at the world," said Shebala. "They will see her as someone who is royalty, who made a mistake but didn't let it keep her down."

Krystal Curley, 17, appreciated the role models the movie presented."Seeing this movie as a youth really makes me feel proud, because I had nobody to look up to when I was little," she said. "I know that when I have kids, when the people in the movie have kids, they will have someone to look up to." 

Hartle's hopes for the film are to first get it distributed in schoolsnationwide, and then for it to eventually air on PBS. Plans are in the making for showings to be held in Gallup and Albuquerque.    

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