Cast & Crew
Francis Kee Teller
Mrs. Kee Teller
In 1940, on the Navajo Indian Reservation, young Son of the Hunter runs a race every morning as he tends his sheep and goats so that the sun, his true father, will see him and know that he wants a horse. After hearing an owl hoot three times in daylight, Son of the Hunter tells Grey Singer, a former medicine man who lives with him and his mother, Good Weaver, about the bird. Grey Singer, whom the boy calls his grandfather, realizes that the owl's presence means they must now move. As Son of the Hunter's father has been away for a long time working for the railroad, Grey Singer takes him to look for pasture land and piñon nuts above the Great Rock Canyon, known to the white man as Canyon de Chelly. At the Great Rock Canyon, which has been a stronghold for the Navajo, Grey Singer points out ruins of their ancestors and tells Son of the Hunter that their people gathered there for protection during their war with white soldiers and would not have been found, but their enemies, the Ute, betrayed them to the soldiers. Most of the Navajos were starved into surrendering, then taken far away, the older man relates. Grey Singer's mother, however, escaped from the soldiers and lived in a secret cave for three years. Son of the Hunter is proud that the survivors killed white soldiers with rocks, and as he picks piñon nuts, the boy tells Grey Singer of his hatred for all whites. Grey Singer warns that evil thoughts lead only into darkness and advises that the boy think of beauty and follow the path of light. At night, as evil spirits lead the boy to think of his starving ancestors, the voice of the wind awakens him and he sees a rattlesnake approach. He is about to kill it with a rock, when Grey Singer takes the rock away and says that they do not kill their brothers, the animals and snakes. He then sings a chant so that the snake will not be offended. At the Chinlee Valley Store, Son of the Hunter frets after overhearing people say that the white chief in Washington has determined that all Indian children between the ages of six and twelve must go to school. At night, they camp at Rock Standing Up, where Grey Singer talks to the stars to find a place with water and pasture for the sheep. They return to their hogan and leave with Good Weaver and the boy's sisters. After traveling many days, they find land with a big water hole and peach trees, which they decide will be their new home. Grey Singer leaves to find Good Weaver's husband, as she believes that he will return once he learns about the new home. Son of the Hunter explores the area alone and in the rocks finds a coyote trap, old pictures drawn on a wall and human bones. Grey Singer returns with food and news that Good Weaver's husband has taken another wife, who is half-white, and that he is in jail. Son of the Hunter's hatred of whites increases with this news, while his mother stoically urges them to forget about her husband and get to work on their new land. Grey Singer soon realizes that he is dying as a result of the trip and following tradition, asks the family to take him, with food and water to last four days, to a place where he can die alone. He gives Son of the Hunter his horse and tells the boy that his body, which has been lent to him, will go back to the earth and his spirit to the land of peace from whence it came. By dawn of his second day alone, Grey Singer has died. Son of the Hunter is sent to the trading post by his mother, and while in town, he is apprehended by police and taken to a school. He refuses to give his name, because he thinks the whites would then have power over him, and views the other Indian boys as traitors to their race for learning the white man's tongue. The white counselor, trying to establish a friendship, offers Son of the Hunter his pocketknife, and the boy grabs it and runs off. The counselor goes with a Ute guide, Billy, whom Son of the Hunter despises, to a Franciscan mission to find the boy, and they learn that Good Weaver and one of her daughters have died from sickness, and that the boy's other sister is now being taken care of by nuns. Son of the Hunter finds his hogan burned and cooking utensils broken. Filled with evil thoughts, he goes off to hide, then returns to Rock Standing Up, where he remembers Grey Singer's comforting thought that nothing really dies. The next day, the hungry boy goes to the Chinlee Valley Store and attempts to trade the pocketknife for food. When he is recognized from circulated descriptions, he runs off. The school is notified, and soon the counselor and Billy trail the boy to the canyon. Seeing his pursuers, the boy covers his tracks, then climbs up the Canyon of Death. At dusk, the counselor and Billy set up camp hoping the boy will come down when he sees their fire. Despite being frightened by human bones and a skull, the boy remains all night, and the next day, Billy hears him pounding the wall to make a coyote trap. Billy climbs and is injured by falling rocks set for the trap. While the counselor climbs to help Billy, Son of the Hunter goes to their camp to get their food. The counselor yells to the boy to get help for Billy, but he runs off. At night, he tries to forget his pursuers, but the wind of the cold night reminds him of the voice of Grey Singer telling him to put aside evil thoughts. The boy then realizes that the men are not his enemies, but friends, and he runs to the valley store for help with the good thought that in everything there is beauty.
Francis Kee Teller
Mrs. Kee Teller
Virgil E. Miller
Best Documentary Feature
The opening credits of this film contain the following statement: "This motion picture was filmed entirely on the Navajo Indian Reservation." The working title of the film was The Voice of the Wind. Navajo marked Hall Bartlett's first film as a producer. According to news stories, Bartlett began his career in Hollywood as an actor and wrote four treatments that did not sell before Stanley Kramer, who had become a close friend, advised him to give up acting and become a producer. Bartlett raised $25,000 for the film in Los Angeles and from family and friends in his hometown of Kansas City. Friend Norman Foster agreed to direct the film without pay and share the revenues with Bartlett. At the Navajo Indian Reservation in northeastern Arizona, Bartlett received the approval of the tribal council allowing members of the tribe to act in the film. Most of the film was shot at the reservation, Canyon de Chelly, Death Canyon and the trading post of Chinlee. The company selected as their star seven-year-old Francis Kee Teller, who did not speak English and had never seen a film. John Mitchell, who played the role of "Grey Singer," was an elderly medicine man. News stories state that he was paid a bale of hay and a sheep before shooting every day.
According to Variety, the score by Leith Stevens was an adaptation of original Native American music. Veteran cinematographer Virgil E. Miller came out of semi-retirement to work on the film. He shot the film with only a camera, tripod and four reflectors, using a crew of three. Miller, who played a small role in the film, stated in a Los Angeles Times article following production, "I have made up my mind that in my future pictures I again will try to achieve simple, natural setups, as far as possible, and to avoid any of the customary so-called box-office clichés and standards." Miller's black-and-white cinematography in this film was nominated for an Academy Award. While some contemporary sources state that production of the film cost $24,220 and a total of $51,000 was spent by the end of post-production, other sources quote the total cost at $100,000. Lippert Pictures acquired the distribution rights, planning to release the film on the art house circuit. Variety noted that Lippert's usual releases were "straight commercial, exploitation pictures." A November 20, 1951 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that the film would be screened in Chinlee as part of a fund-raising drive for the American Red Cross.
In Screen, Dr. Harry Tschopik, Jr., who had lived among the Navajo, stated, "The film makes no pretense at documenting Navajo culture in its entirety, although details of Navajo belief, custom, and history are introduced in a casual, realistic manner whenever they are pertinent to the plot." Reviews were favorable concerning the film. Variety called it "an offbeat film that ranks right along with, if not topping, most of the foreign art imports that have previously impressed cosmopolitan critics." The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, although Newsweek commented, "Documentary is a dull word for this moving and unusual film." It won the top award at the Edinburgh Film Festival and won twenty-six national awards. According to Hollywood Citizen-News, in January 1953, Robert Bice, an actor and writer, filed a $100,000 plagiarism suit charging that Navajo "embodied the 'dramatic core'" of a story he wrote in 1948, entitled "Little Moji." Bice contended that he showed the story in 1949 to Miller and that he told Miller of "distinctive production features which would save $50,000." Bice charged that his production idea was used "in shaping Navajo." No information concerning the disposition of the suit has been located.