The city of Navajo, N.M., is within the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the United States, sprawling across the states of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The unemployment rate is near 58 percent and per-capita income is $6,100 a year. At the Navajo Pine High School, only 30 percent of the students earn a diploma, and of those that continue their education, only one in 10 will complete studies for a college degree.
“Up Heartbreak Hill,” airing on KUED on Tuesday, July 31, at 11 p.m., follows three students during their senior year at Navajo Pine High as they struggle with loyalty to the reservation and a desire for a better life.
It is an eye-opening documentary and a bleak view into Native American adolescence as the young adults confront seemingly insurmountable challenges — of both daily life and decisions for their future.
Gabby has a passion for photography. Her main source of support is from her boyfriend. Thomas is a statewide champion track star from a home deeply troubled by drugs and abandonment. Tamara is the scholar of the three youngsters profiled and in competition to be the school valedictorian.
They are not complaining but explaining as they speak with documentarian Erica Scharf.
“Around here, everyone thinks they live in a Third World country,” says Thomas.
“Everyone on my mom’s side do drugs and are alcoholics, while everyone on my dad’s side are in jail,” Gabby says.
“College is sort of a yes and a no,” Tamara says.
Also interviewed is the school’s principal, who acknowledges that part of his responsibility is to help students “learn how to survive.”
The three want to get a college degree but have difficulties choosing where to go and handling the thought of leaving their families and community. For an outside observer, it would seem to be an easy decision, but the choice becomes more problematic when familial issues that come with Native American life are considered, along with their isolation from mainstream America.
Thomas is resolute that he wants "to go to college, come back here and make a difference for my nation." Yet he cannot quite disassociate himself from the recognition that he is a stable support to his broken family, which includes his reformed but troubled alcoholic father, an absent mother and the aunt who took him in when his grandmother died in a car accident.
In contrast, Tamara’s home life is happy, with parents supportive of her ambitions to pursue an engineering degree, despite a reluctance to see their daughter leave home. But given her career prospects, she faces moving away for good.
On the reservation, “red mesas jut into endless blue skies; wild sage grows in abundance alongside the road,” observes the young filmmaker. “On the other hand, it is a community stricken by poverty, full of dilapidated buildings, rusted swing sets and crumbling homes.”
To produce the documentary, Scharf “set up camp in an unused single-wide trailer in the high school parking lot, which meant the kids literally passed by my front window on their way to class. Such proximity was invaluable, and the community welcomed me at sporting events, dinner tables and birthday parties.”
Viewing "Up Heartbreak Hill," poetically named for an infamous ascending pass on Thomas’ cross-country course, is to recognize that these teens carry burdens far weightier than those of most 18-year-olds, and the lifestyle of the young adults in the Navajo Nation is wholly different than what typical American children enjoy.
But there is reason for hope as these students pursue educational and economic opportunities. As noted near the documentary’s end, “Everything can happen if willing to change. You can’t move forward if stuck in the past.”