Each autumn when Tonisha and Tonielle Draper leave their farm in Canyon de Chelly, the sisters grab cottonwood leaves from the trees, kiss them, and toss them into the stream. It’s not a Navajo tradition, but it’s among the blended traditional and contemporary practices that merge on the farm where their family continues to plant corn in fields with ancestral ruins and petroglyphs in sight.
"They're a strong family. They care about the land, they understand very much about what makes their culture unique and they're working hard to preserve it directly through their children," says Amy Marquis, founder and co-director of National Park Experience, a film series created to highlight the diversity in America's national parks. One of those films screens in Santa Fe on Feb. 24 as part of the Telluride Mountainfilm on Tour.
That short film, "Canyon Song," explores the Navajo history of separation from culture, language and land, and how return to one renews another. Canyon de Chelly offered one of the last hideouts from the Navajo Long Walk, a forced exodus of Native people that sent hundreds on foot for 500 miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The national monument later created around the red sandstone canyon is the rare example of a national park where Native Americans were allowed to continue living in and farming on the land, rather than being ushered out in the name of preserving that landscape for other values.
On the first visit Marquis and "Canyon Song" director Dana Romanoff made to Canyon de Chelly, in addition to watching the first snow of the season fall in the canyon from a hogan, they attended a cultural night at a local high school where a Navajo pageant was taking place. The contest tests cultural knowledge, ability to butcher a sheep and make tortillas and frybread, and mastery of the Navajo language.
"Without fully knowing where the story would lead us, we just knew that we wanted to follow a family—and these young girls, especially, that were involved in the pageants and really interested in continuing their heritage and learning their culture," Romanoff, who is also co-director of National Park Experience, says.
They found that story in the Drapers, one of about 40 families still farming in the canyon in much the same way their ancestors did.
"To the Draper family, having that land, farming it, is everything. It's been in their family for a long time," Marquis says. "You can tell their childhood memories are very connected to their farm, and it's a really important source of food for them."
Above the rim, they're a typical American family, with kids playing sports and a mom in nursing school. Once in the canyon, the pace changes.
"Everything just slowed down a little bit, and they're always smiling and laughing," Marquis says. "Something really clicked in with all of them when they're in the canyon."
Marquis and Romanoff began working on the project as part of a series of films to celebrate the National Park Service centennial anniversary in August 2016.
"The average face of the national park visitor doesn't reflect the face of America," Romanoff says. "We need to redefine what that face looks like and who feels welcome in the parks for the next hundred years."
That effort to record and share Native stories resurfaced again in more recent work that brought Marquis and Romanoff to the Santa Fe area, filming on a section of the Rio Grande that's been designated a Wild and Scenic River, a congressional marker similar to a wilderness area. That film, "Avanyu," follows a family leading an annual "feast and float" raft trip with Los Rios River Runners.
"We tried to bridge the gap between the way the white person is educated and the way a Native person learns and is educated, so mixing stories and culture with some of the facts of the area, just to bring people outdoors and into that environment in hopes of having people listen more to the Indigenous voice," Romanoff says.
As Tesuque Pueblo member Louie Hena, its central figure, declares: "This is my office and my church."
That film will be released online on Feb. 24 as part of the American Rivers effort to celebrate 2018's 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
At Telluride Mountainfilm, "Canyon Song" will appear amid stories of a 90-year-old ice skater, surfers riding river waves in Montana, the first Bangladeshi to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents, and multi-sport aficionados linking a first ascent of a desert tower with fat biking through slot canyons and pack rafting near the Four Corners.
Telluride Mountainfilm on Tour: A Benefit for WildEarth Guardians
7 pm Friday Feb. 24. $17.
Lensic Performing Arts Center,
211 W San Francisco St.,
The Enthusiast is a twice-monthly column dedicated to the people in and stories from our outdoor sports community.