Sharing Her Family's Story

Teen filmmaker Camille Manybeads Tso talks to TFK

Oct 26, 2010 | By Suzanne Zimbler

When Camille Manybeads Tso was 13, she decided to make a movie about her great-great-great-grandmother, a Navajo warrior known as Yellow Woman. In the 1860s, Yellow Woman was one of many Navajos who were forced to leave their land in Arizona and travel hundreds of miles on foot to New Mexico. Yellow Woman survived, but many people did not.

Camille's movie is called In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman. It has been shown in more than 30 film festivals, and has won nine awards. Camille, 15, talked to TFK about her reason for making the movie and her plans for future films.

TFK:

Before you began to work on the film about your great-great-great-grandmother, did you already know her story?

CAMILLE MANYBEADS TSO:

I had grown up listening to the stories of my family. I'd heard about the story of my great-great-great-grandmother, but I didn't realize that it was that close to me. I thought, "It happened a long time ago, so it doesn't really matter now." It all seemed very distant from my life.

TFK:

When you were 13, what sparked your interest in the story?

TSO:

I was home-schooled for eighth grade. My mother gave me an assignment to interview my grandmother—an oral-history report. My grandmother told me the story, and it just stuck with me.

TFK:

How did you get started on the project?

TSO:

First I did interviews to learn about what happened. My dad translated all of the things that I didn't know in Navajo. (My grandmother speaks mainly Navajo.) After seven drafts of the script, I started trying to get my cousins to help me out with the film.

TFK:

How did you choose the wardrobe items for the film?

TSO:

I did a lot of research on that era. I looked through pictures of the Long Walk. For the dresses for my character and her sister, we went to a fabric store, found burlap sacks, painted them and put them on.

TFK:

Where was the film first screened?

TSO:

The first screening was at the Infoshop, which is the community center on the reservation where I live. We had to do two screenings because the room was so packed. We showed it to 60 or 70 people that night. Then it started going to film festivals. It's been shown in more than 30 film festivals. It's won nine awards.

TFK:

Were you surprised by the response the film has gotten?

TSO:

I really was surprised by the response. I had hoped that people would like it. Then people started wanting to have it in their film festival or started wanting to show it at their school. It was really incredible to see how big of a response there was, and how many people were open to learning about the story.

TFK:

How has this project affected you?

TSO:

I felt very close to [Yellow Woman] by the end, and I still feel very close to her even if I haven't met her. And just getting so involved in something that was family and culture-based, I saw a big change in myself. With learning my family history, I got to see the transformation not only in myself, but also in my cousins who worked on the film. There were 15 to 20 people who worked on the film. Only three of them were not related to Yellow Woman.

TFK:

Will your next film focus on your family?

TSO:

I think I'm going to stick with my family for a while because I love my family and I want to learn more about it. I think this is a good starting place. It's a good way for me to get grounded and to know where I come from. This way, when I start branching out, I'll stick with my true values because I know the stories that go with why I have those values.

TFK:

What do you hope other kids will get out of the film?

TSO:

I want to teach other Native youth—really all youth—about going out and learning their family history and also learning how to tell their own stories. When I see a kid do something incredible through film, or write a story or paint a picture, it really makes me feel like I can try to achieve what they're achieving. I hope that's what other kids get when they see this film.

TFK:

What is your advice to other kids who want to tell their own family stories?

TSO:

Just go out and learn the stories of your ancestors. And then tell the stories in a way that you want to. You can draw. You can write. You can film. You can make songs. Just go out there and do it.

TFK:

Do all kids have interesting stories in their family history?

TSO:

I believe that everybody has a story to tell. Any small detail in their family can mean something big. Wherever your family is now, there had to be a reason to get there. And somebody in your ancestry helped to get there. Our stories are going to be amazing to our grandkids. And then our grandkids' stories are going to be amazing to their grandkids. So if we keep learning and asking questions and passing down the stories, they are going to stay with the family for a long time.