Taking her blood test at the Tribal Census Office is only one of many "funny" things Tamara has to deal with in Up Heartbreak Hill, premiering 26 July on PBS.
That's my motivation to, you know, excel in life and to come back and be a prime example, to be that person that I wish I had in my life.
"I'm getting my certificate of Indian blood and I have to get that to make sure that I'm Indian," says Tamara Hardy. "Because some scholarships out here, they need your CIB in order to identify yourself as an Indian." She wears braces and a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey, and rolls her eyes at the absurdity she faces. "I think it's funny," she says, "but that's how things are in life, so you have to deal with it."
Taking her blood test at the Tribal Census Office is only one of many "funny" things Tamara has to deal with in Up Heartbreak Hill, premiering 26 July on PBS. A senior at Navajo Pine High School in Navajo, New Mexico, she's grown up hearing about what she can't do because she's an "Indian." As her best friend Thomas Martinez puts it, "It's kind of hard living in Navajo sometimes, because everyone's so negative. It's just what you think all the time, what I hear from people, is straight up bad." As he speaks, the camera in Erica Scharf's documentary offers a series of illustrations: a decrepit swing set in a dusty schoolyard, a dog crossing a long, empty road, hanging laundry glimpsed through a chainlink fence.
Poetic and mundane, these few images set up the tensions facing Tamara and Thomas. All too aware that Native traditions are at risk, that language and rituals are slipping away, they also look forward, wanting to change the experiences they've had. At once hopeful and frustrated, they speak repeatedly about their efforts to resist and also reshape expectations. "I'm a Native American who is just trying to get an education in life," says Tamara, who's both her class president and "the second fastest runner" on her track team. "Our ancestors, they didn’t know about all this education. All they had in their mind was to hunt, grow crops, and that's it."
This summary sounds like the kind of story provided for white people, who, she observes, "just do things way differently than we do." The film provides glimpses of the other sorts of education Tamara's ancestors embraced, the prayers and rituals that mark transitions as well as continuities. Tamara and Thomas both face changes in their young lives, as they contemplate what comes after high school. Both aspire to leave the reservation, Tamara applying for scholarships available to those who have "Indian blood," and Thomas hoping his brilliance as a runner will earn him a scholarship. At the moment, both also plan to come back, to serve their communities by with educations to bear and also helping to recover what their community has lost.
Tamara's father Leonard remembers that when he returned to the reservation after earning a technical school degree, he took a job with the tribe. At the same time, he recalls, he and his wife determined that at home, their children would speak English only. As you watch Tamara and her older brother peer into a computer screen, Leonard explains, "I thought that by talking like that, they would do a lot better in the world." Tamara adds, "When the whites came out here, they forbid the Navajos could talk their native language, and now we're trying to get it back."
Still, Tamara faces hard decisions. Her parents hope she'll attend the community college rather than heading off to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. Tamara understands, but her best friend Guin is at For Lewis: when Tamara and the track team, including their coach Tim Host, go to Colorado for a visit, they can't help but be impressed by the up-to-date classrooms (their guide offers a powerpoint presentation) and expansive, well-kept grounds. On the green athletic field, sponsored by the Bank of Colorado, the team does pushups and laughs, imagining what it would be like not to go back.
Again, the film shows what's at stake, cutting from this scene to Navajo, where horses graze on brown grass outside dingy, one-story prefabs. Thomas in particular has a hard background: his father abusive and alcoholic, his mother absent, his grandparents killed in a car accident. Raised by his Aunt Delphine (who still dyes his spectacular Mohawk pink each week, though she suggests he find a professional to help), Thomas still wants his parents to be proud. His father is now reformed, following a car wreck of his own that left him in a coma for three months, and his mother is returned to the reservation, after Thomas convinced paid for the gas needed to retrieve her from a shelter in Arizona.
Thomas' situation is all too typical, according to his principal, Henry Henderson, who lists the many obstacles facing his students while the camera tracks through a high school hallway, locker doors banging shut and kids running to class. There are, he says, "a lot of social issues here that our students come with, diabetes, alcoholism, drug use, domestic violence." Thomas appears bent over his desk, as Henderson concludes, "I think the real element is, how do you learn how to survive?"
While the high school's ability to help is limited (Henderson points out that he has an annual budget of just $13,000), the kids look for their own ways to survive. Feeling supported by her "awesome" family, Tamara says, "When I run, it just takes all the stress away. I have the time to think about it and find solutions." Thomas struggles with his concentration, on the track and in class. During one sequence, he and his teacher Dean Tye appear in alternating shots, as each offers a version of their difficult relationship. "He's just one of those teachers you really can't take seriously," Thomas asserts, as Tye observes, "Sometimes when he gets mad, he says things off the cuff," for instance, "He called me a "white cracker.'" When Thomas' coach is called in to mediate, he apologizes. The coach understates, "I kind of knew Thomas wasn’t having the kind of season he wanted to be having."
It's to the credit of Up Heartbreak Hill that this moment is less sensational than intelligible, an indication of the difficulties facing everyone on the reservation. As the teenagers are encouraged both to see beyond Navajo and to remain loyal to their nation, they're called on to balance multiple expectations and needs. That Thomas and Tamara wake each morning and start their runs, they do their best to look forward.