‘Up Heartbreak Hill’ takes us inside Navajo Nation

Thomas Martinez runs down Asaayi Road. Image courtesy of Thosh Collins (Pima/Osage/Seneca-Cayuga).WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TO SEE “UP HEARTBREAK HILL”
“Up Heartbreak Hill” is scheduled to air on PBS’s highly praised POV series, Thursday July 26—the eve of the 2012 Olympics. Check showtimes and learn more about the documentary at this POV website.
NOTE FOR iPAD and iPHONE USERS: This film has been selected as one of PBS’s free-to-mobile opportunities, starting now. Read more on this page at POV.

Review: ‘Up Heartbreak Hill’
Rare Journey Inside Indian Families

Reviewed by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

ReadTheSpirit encourages all of us to learn more about the lives of Native Amerians.
We published a profile of a traditional Indian healer in our American Journey series. We are promoting the remembrance of Jim Thorpe during this year’s centennial of the decathlon at the Olympics. We’ve covered the Twilight-related tribe, the Quilete, in their quest for greater recognition. Earlier this month, we reported from Ocmulgee in Georgia. And we are covering the progress of Bl. Kateri toward canonization as the first Native American saint in the Catholic church. (We also publish the book-length memoir of Odawa teacher Warren Petoskey, Dancing My Dream.)

As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I come from decades as a senior religion news writer for major newspapers and know how difficult it is to report honestly and intimately from Indian communities. From the Native American perspective, almost no good can come from outsiders wanting to invade their lives—and a host of bad things can result. It’s not paranoia—it’s the Indian wisdom from centuries of tragedy.

That’s the important context behind this week’s delightful video postcard sent to us from the heart of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico—courtesy of several high-school students who dared to spend a year with fillmmaker Erica Scharf. Our appreciation also should extend to these students’ teachers, athletic coaches, families and friends. This level of access to dinner tables, classrooms and private moments with the kids is stunning for anyone who understands the huge barriers that normally prevent such projects.

This is perfect timing for PBS’s POV series. Both of the prominently featured teen-agers are athletes—so, as the 2012 Olympics also are roaring into prime time we can switch to PBS for this hour-long documentary and see what athletic competition really means to teenagers running against steep odds. We are hoping that the Olympics also will include a salute to Native American athlete Jim Thorpe, the first gold medalist in the decathlon 100 years ago. It’s wonderful to see Scharf’s scenes of young Indian track stars in the centennial year of Thorpe’s global success.

There are enough unguarded moments here with the teens that we are able to hear their voices loud and clear. Tamara Hardy is both an athlete and a top student in her high school. Listen for her graduation speech at the very end of the program for a memorable reflection on her life. Thomas Martinez is a distinctively mohawk-groomed kid who may look a bit odd, but is loveable in a sort of Jimmy Stewart way. Early in the film, he tries to describe his tangled feelings about being Indian, life on the reservation and his hope for a future outside the restraints of his troubled family.

Thomas says: “I hear it from people: What’s wrong with our Navajo Nation? But this is where I live. I just love the mountains and the trees. I love the idea of being free here.”

IMPORTANT NEWS LOOKING AHEAD: My one complaint about the PBS broadcast is that POV’s 60-minute time slot requires the original 84-minute documentary to shrink. Few Americans will have seen the original film in its brief 2011 tour of the country, so most won’t recognize what happened: Scharf cut the film to broadcast length by eliminating a third teen-ager in the original production. We’ve lost “Gabby,” an aspiring photographer and a very thoughtful addition to this film. Here’s the good news: Scharf plans to release the full version later this year on DVD and ReadTheSpirit will tell you how to order that film. So, stay tuned. Think of the PBS broadcast as a first taste of this story—with more coming later.

What’s best about this movie as it will air on PBS? Tamara and Thomas are ideal poster kids for the best in Indian communities. Despite all their hard luck in life, they are proud of their heritage, they love their families and they both seem destined for success by anyone’s standards.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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