The state-funded documentary was supposed to present the Code Talkers’ perspective, following six surviving soldiers and their families to old Pacific battlefields. In 2005, the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department gave a contract worth $330,000 to the non-profit Santa Fe Media & Education Center.
This month, after years of behind-the-scenes bickering, IAD sued SFMEC and producer George A Colburn, saying he botched the project, and has falsely claimed copyright for the film, titled Navajo Code Talkers: In Their Own Words.
“I’ve seen so many documentary films—this was one of the worst. It really was a waste of taxpayer dollars,” state Rep. Ray Begaye, D-San Juan, tells SFR. To say as much stings, since Begaye helped obtain funding for the film.
He’s not the only one who’s disappointed, according to New Mexico Indian Affairs Department Secretary Alvin Warren.
“We had a screening for the Code Talkers themselves and their families in Gallup. Overwhelmingly, the response was they were not satisfied with the product,” Warren tells SFR.
Several Code Talkers have died since production began, Warren says. He hopes a new film can be made with Colburn’s footage, if a court upholds the state’s copyright.
Colburn defends his work, and casts himself as a victim of state power.
“A lonely little producer up in northern Michigan, he can’t fight the state of New Mexico. I just wish that they had talked it over with me and come to some resolution [before filing a lawsuit],” Colburn tells SFR. “Basically, they don’t want this show to happen, for reasons unknown.”
Colburn says the DVD he delivered in November 2007 was a “rough edit,” not a finished work. He was unaware IAD had screened it for the Code Talkers.
“I sent copies to Code Talkers who were on the trip. I got feedback from one of them, who appeared to like it,” Colburn says.
Begaye compares the production quality to that of a “home video.” SFR’s viewing suggests “late-night public television” may be a better description.
Colburn’s attorney, Benjamin Allison, says his client met the terms of the contract with IAD. “They would never tell us what they didn’t like,” Allison says.
The project evidently began with a conversation between former Navajo Code Talker Association attorney Michael P Gross and Santa Fe Media & Education Center Vice President Tom McCarthy, who made a film on the Code Talkers some two decades ago for the state Department of Cultural Affairs.
McCarthy says he knew Colburn in college; they reconnected when Colburn bought a condo in Santa Fe. After connecting Colburn with Gross, McCarthy says, “we went and talked to Bill Richardson, who liked the idea.”
The Code Talkers’ lobbyist, Pilar Faulkner, used Richardson’s interest to sell state lawmakers to fund the project, McCarthy says. After several failed funding bills, Rep. Begaye says he succeeded in allocating $450,000 to IAD for the film. In retrospect, Begaye says, the money should have gone to an agency with more contracting experience. “The IAD had no clue,” Begaye says.
Warren declines to discuss contracting procedures under his predecessor, Benny Shendo Jr.
Faulkner also complains that Colburn treated the Code Talkers “like children.” McCarthy, more generously, says Colburn failed to develop rapport with his subjects, and vetoed his suggested Native American hires.
McCarthy resigned from SFMEC, but not before asking Colburn to resign as board president on the advice of a lawyer. Colburn, who now controls the organization, says McCarthy ousted him in a “power grab” while he was overseas.
Colburn’s latest project, Tomorrow’s America, bills itself as a sober study of the effects of mass immigration, but has been promoted by nativist writers such as Frosty Wooldridge, who decries the “litany of crime” committed by “illegals.” An expert panel on the series website consists of six white men and one woman.