July 2011

Quirky flicks and moving manifestos: Shonto Prep's young artists love creating multimedia works of art

By Peter Baxter

When driving the Arizona stretch of U.S. Highway 160, you can’t help but marvel at the scenery. To the south, you see the rising expanse of the Carrizos and to the northwest the looming mass of Navajo Mountain. You pass the russet hoodoos of Baby Rocks and the crags of Church Rock and, just to the north, Agathla Peak, a dark spike, rises into the sky.

Landmarks and topographical wonders abound –– including those curious “elephant feet” near Red Lake –– and, whether you’re headed to Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon, or a more distant destination, the drive is a visual feast.

Still, some of the treasures of that region don’t get the same notice, at least not by the casual traveler. These are the multimedia projects of students at Shonto Preparatory School, where young artists channel their creativity into community entertainment and award-winning films.

Located just northeast of Arizona Highway 98, Shonto Prep rests unassumingly alongside Shonto Canyon –– students at the school affectionately call this “the crack” –– where the old Shonto Trading Post is nestled back against the cliff.

Shonto Prep, in its earliest Bureau of Indian Affairs form, was founded in 1933, and over the decades it has undergone an evolution from a strict government boarding school to a progressive, K-12 Bureau of Indian Education grant-funded/Arizona charter school.

Currently, the school serves more than 600 students from the greater Shonto area, including Kayenta, Inscription House, Black Mesa, Pinon, and Tonalea; some students even come from Utah.

Shonto Prep has a legacy of offering a high-quality, culturally-relevant education to children of the region. A slogan on the wall of one classroom at Shonto Prep reads, “Don’t teach me my culture. Use my culture to teach me.”

Orleta Slick, a former Shonto Prep student and now a faculty member, is doing just that: helping students to blend culture and heritage with their own creativity and personal interests and to produce entertaining and illuminating multimedia projects. Slick started work at Shonto Prep nine years ago as head of the school’s Gifted and Talented program. These days she coordinates an after-school program called the 21st-Century Community Learning Center.

Together with Daniel Tate, the program’s video/media instructor –– he said of himself, “I’m a film freak; I just love the process of making movies” –– Slick acts as mentor for students as they engage in a variety of projects. Sometimes the projects are subject- specific, as when Slick leads Saturday science field trips, for example to Northern Arizona University.

Just as often, though, students spearhead the explorations, affording themselves a rare opportunity in modern public education: the chance to pursue precisely what appeals to them. As Slick and Tate both said, “The 21st-Century Community Learning Center opens doors for students.”

Such autonomy is nearly unheard of in an era when state budgets are being pared back, if not slashed drastically. How, then, does a program like Shonto’s 21st-CCLC even exist?

The funding comes from a highly competitive BIE grant. The grant lasts five years, and Slick herself rewrites it when the time comes to reapply. Of course, where money is concerned, there is always accountability, and the BIE hires consultants to visit Shonto Prep annually, observe students, and evaluate the program itself.

Some of the program’s projects are serious and documentary in nature, such as “What We Know Now,” a 10-minute exploration of the aftermath of uranium-mining on the Navajo reservation that Slick, together with one of her standout students, researched, directed, and produced in 2009 and 2010. The film won Best Documentary Short at the Red Nation Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Another serious project is “My Left Side,” an original three-minute film portrayal of bullying and escape via artistic creativity. “My Left Side” was created by current members of the 21st-CCLC, including seventh-grader Kiamana Lameman, who said of the program, “It’s fun for me – it keeps me busy. Plus, I like making people think, and some day I would like to work with CGI [computer-generated imagery] so this is good experience.”

Lameman also noted, along with Slick and Tate, that the program’s male students are more drawn than the female students to the post-filming editing, which almost always involves hours of meticulous, repetitive work in the 21st-CCLC’s small computer lab. (Female 21st-CCLC students tend to prefer being in front of the camera.) Tate expanded on the creative, collaborative nature of filmmaking, saying, “We’re using modern technology here –– the cameras, special effects, iMovie, Final Cut Pro –– but really this process and experience are in keeping with the Native storytelling tradition. It’s just a contemporary version.”

Shonto’s young filmmakers also enjoy producing work that is primarily for entertainment. One such project, which like “My Left Side” was a nominee at Future Voices of New Mexico, is senior Braunwyn Walsh’s quirky “Girl Friends,” a three-minute film in which an unnamed girl, played by Walsh, speaks directly to the audience and expounds on her bond with “Suzanne,” a rather abstract goat sculpture “made out of cold, hard metal.” The girl and Suzanne confide in one another, and even play soccer and basketball, albeit with ambiguous results.

Other entertaining productions include the “Three Guys” series, based on both mid-20th-Century French comedy and on the Three Stooges. These films unfold in grainy black-and-white and feature an oldtime big-band score. Students did the filming, with the program’s little hand-held Sony –– Slick said students feel more natural with the Sony than the program’s larger, more advanced Canon XL2.

The first film in the series is “The Three Guys and the Adventures of Canned Food,” which features three guys, played by students, waddling and encountering Spam, beans, and other canned delicacies, which they promptly react to in goofy pantomime.

As farcical as their original creations can be, students don’t apologize for their creativity or how they employ their artistic license. Nor do they pander to their audience; though school policy prohibits them from showing blood or explicit violence, student work has been known to upset some members of their viewing audience.

One example is “The Child in the Room,” a psychological thriller featuring a demented doll. Some viewers were so unsettled by the film that they walked out of the screening.

Walsh –– whose family is from Shonto but who spent her first three years of high school in Flagstaff and in San Jose, Calif., before returning to graduate with her Shonto friends –– said, “I think the program promotes both confidence and creativity in students, even if audiences don’t love all of the work that’s created.”

Many 21st-CCLC alumni have gone on to college, including Diné College in Tsaile and Albuquerque’s Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. Walsh, who wants to be a veterinarian, will be attending Arizona State University.

Slick encourages students to be neutral and informative in their documentary work, avoiding anger, bitterness, or laying blame and, instead, letting content speak for itself.

Slick, Tate, and their students, working and learning amidst the natural wonders of northeast Arizona, seem to be on a productive and successful course. The diversity of the 21st-Century Community Learning Center –– filming pageants in the Shonto Prep gymnasium, showing student work at film festivals, participating in the annual “Tour de Rez=” cycling and hiking trek across the reservation –– is undeniable and the program’s past and present students are evidence of just how welcome an addition the program is to early 21st-Century education.