Keeping up with the Jones

4. Thoreau family

Our first shoot was on the Navajo Nation in Thoreau, NM, currently the site for a new Rail Line to be installed about 30 miles East of Gallup, NM. We arrived to film a railroad family of three brothers who worked for BNSF. Their father worked for Santa Fe, the oldest brother recently retired, and the two younger ones worked together on the regional steel gang as oppose to a system gang that webs steel across the nation. We filmed two brothers getting ready to leave for the M-F workweek.

4. 2 brothers

Come Friday no matter where the jobsite — if its located as far as Kansas or Louisiana, the brothers drive home to sometimes stay less than 30 hours. Then they leave Sunday morning only to report on Monday at the next jobsite. The intense travel schedule is not insurmountable but different than how they first started on the railroad. “We lived in box cars that were pulled along as we worked the tracks. We used to get up at 4:30 in the morning, get ready, hear a bell and everyone would go run over. Eat, work, Eat, back to work, Eat, then sleep. Everyday was like that.”

4. Thoreau trackmen

The Jones family shared stories about their work, travels, hitting animals, mileage, and missing out on the life they are providing. It was eye opening to hear about the emotional, physical, and spiritual sacrifices working for the railroad. One brother explained that he missed his son’s basketball games and realized that his son grew into a man while he was away at work. “It’s hard not seeing your family grow up. It hurts but you can’t let it hurt because you know you are making their lives better.”

4. Thoreau windshield

The brothers counted hitting 6 deer/elk between them showing us pictures of a brand new car that needed a windshield replacement. Six deer!

4. Thoreau stew

This was our first family to visit and they fed us beef stew and dry bread.

NOTE to self: do no discount the wind in the high desert. Even with a wind sock to protect the microphone, the audio levels were wrecked with noise. There went our sweet interviews with the wives standing against the backdrop of beautiful landscape. 4. Thoreau Wife

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Buy New Suitcases

Meeting the union reps for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way set the tone for our film. They explained what we simply didn’t understand in one short story:

A group of new hires gather for a union meeting. The union rep asks if they know what BNSF stands for.  “Sure,” say the young guys. One yells out “Burlington Northern Santa Fe”.  The union rep says, “Okay, no!  Any other ideas?”

“Buy New Suitcases F-**ers because you’re going to be doing a lot of traveling.”

Haha yeah we couldn’t keep up with them!!  We tried for one steel gang. Missed ‘em. Tried to meet another and missed them too. They did not wait, they moved around like they owed us money or something. So we had to anticipate when and where to find them just to be early enough to catch them, which proved to be more challenging than planned. Railroaders are kind of arrogant in that they do not stop for anything or anyone, unless their car breaks down. But the more we asked around, we started to find them in their natural habitat – Next to their cars. And most certainly did stopped to film some RRers broken down by the side of the road. This is one of the hazards of the job. Breaking down in the middle of nowhere.

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Steel Gang #1 & Steel Gang #2

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In each region of the United States, the most economically oppressed people performed track work. Poor White, Black, Navajo and Hispanic workers have always been hired on for track maintenance starting in the early 1900s. The turnover of personnel was a constant factor for railroad companies as certain groups endured the strenuous work better than others. It was hard dangerous work.

By 1907, more than 4,000 railroaders killed and 62,000 injured. President Theodore Roosevelt urged Congress to enact the Federal Employer’s Liability Act, designed to put on the Railroad industry some of the costs of the legs, arms, eyes, and lives which it consumed in its operation.

Navajo Steel Gangs
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A new livelihood came to Navajos when they became the replacement labor for the Traqueros after World War II. Gangs of 100 men traveled mostly in the summer months from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean when major maintenance or construction was need. The Old Steel gangs primarily started primarily with ATSF, which later became Santa Fe. By 1950s, specialized all Navajo gangs worked outside in any weather condition without complaint, even if injured. We have some great stories of working in tornados, extreme heat, and hail storms.

Navajo Railroad workers helping to clear train derailment

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Old Navajo Steel Gangs

There were so many Navajos working that by 1954, the AT&SF Railway hired a cultural anthropologist named David Brugge to teach “Spoken English” to the Navajo trackmen. The recreational program was intended was break down the reticence of Navajo workers to keep them out of trouble in areas where they were working and decrease turnover of personnel.

 

David Brugge was well liked and traveled for a year living alongside the men in box cars but didn’t work alongside with them. Interesting to note that Brugge went on to research Indian Slavery in the Southwest.

The first all-Navajo Steel Gang #1 started in 1955 and Steel Gang # 2 started in 1966. The older people had seniority on Steel Gang #1. And the younger ones were on #2. “One started working on one rail, going up ahead, the other gang follows on the other side,” says one railroader about his time on Steel Gang #2.  The two gangs worked like that for Santa Fe until it merged and eventually became Burlington Northern Santa Fe. With the new management, the last all-Navajo Steel gang ended in 1999.

 

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The Team

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Metal Road immediately assembled a production team: we needed to find a good producer, cinematographer, editor, a production assistant, and most importantly, a babysitter. Because we had a limited preproduction budget the crew really attached themselves to the subject matter of the film. The life of Navajo Railroaders was such a unique story. We were happy to get Leighton C. Peterson, a sometime Navajo inlaw/outlaw as a film producer on his days off as a professor of anthropology at Miami University.

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Our cinematography was a combination of talents from Kahlil Hudson and Jake Hoyungowa. And our handsome editor Jeff Barnaby signed on from Canada. (More on these individuals later). Now that this crew is aboard there is no turning back.

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Officially Underway

The Metal Road film project officially began with funding from ITVS Diversity Development and Arizona Humanities. It could not have been started any other way. These two organizations supported us from the jump. And with this help we set about to learn more about Navajo railroaders and why we are not finding anything about them in text books.

1. Santa Fe card

Over the next few years we will drive thousands of miles, film at odd hours of the day, get turned away from countless railroad museums, play the great Waylon Jennings’ songs, and meet some of the hardest working people that you can imagine and not because they work on the railroad.

Notes

But how does a documentary project from an independent producer happen, you ask? It all starts with a some kind of personal written proposal that morphs into a project proposal. In my short and limited experience, people are not mind readers and need the written passionate word. You can think up the best ideas and plans but until they are written down and sent off to be read, evaluated, critiqued, and approved or rejected it will stay in the ether. And it totally depends on the readers and their mood and political views, etc.

Research 1

So have heart and love your project even when no one else does. We took the same project and edited it to suit the criteria for several funding organizations and get denied repeatedly. But we were extremely lucky too. That’s when this film really happened.

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Turning film into an interactive experience

As we started this project, we were looking for answers to questions we did not know how to ask yet. Taking an existing film and turning it into an interactive experience that is both accessible and yet intriguing. Interaction between user and the content is in the foreground of taking film as a medium and creating immersion, combining multi-media content into one complete package that is engaging, educating and entertaining. Slowly, we are building up to ask the right questions. What is interesting as additional content outside of the frame of the PBS broadcasted version of the film to an audience? How does choice affect the story telling and the overall atmosphere of the experience? Who, when, where and why are certain key moments important? The result is a prototype that looks like a giant spiderweb, interconnecting stories, background and characters that make “Metal Road” the engaging narrative it is.

iDoc Concept Teaser
We are very excited to move into the next stage and start decorating our spiderweb with visually endearing, multi-media content and get one step closer to create a platform that brings the engaging story of the Navajo railroad workers to the computer, tablet and smartphone screens across the globe.

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Laguna Pueblo Indian RRers, Part 1

When I first started out researching the subject of Navajos working on the railroad, it was clear that Navajos were not the only Native American Railroad workers. The federal government pressed for westward expansion during the 1870s and granted railroad companies millions of acres of right of way to assist the development.  For me, it was returning back to my college days learning all over again about the horrors of eminent domain, which is not left behind in historical events because the U.S. still uses it today with the Dakota Access Pipeline.

We see this exercise of federal power of eminent domain mostly from 1850-1900 when all the Indian Reservations were created. These decades of the government facilitating the transcontinental railroads were pivotal times for the Federal Indian relationship. Everything gave way to the discovery of gold, settlements in the west, and unbridled expansion of railroad corporations and so tribal nations were very much obstacles to development. For construction, public land granted a right of way for much of the rail corridors, however not all railroads were on federal lands so some railroads had to get right of way from private ownership. Imagine that! Getting permission. In the Southwest, that was exactly what happened when the mainline went through the land of many of the Pueblo Indian Tribes in New Mexico.

As a direct result, the Pueblo Indians had a different relationship to the railroad companies. Tomorrow I’ll talk about that relationship.

 

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My Journey

I wanted to make Metal Road to shed light on two related, yet often hidden issues:  manual labor in the US and Native American Histories.  Laborers are often the most economically oppressed people doing infrastructure jobs, but the workers are strong and resilient. My hope is their labors will not go unnoticed any longer.

 

In making Metal Road, I gained a better understanding of work ethic and loyalty that lies dormant inside some of us, particularly in Navajos who live in areas with very high unemployment rates.  When given the opportunity, they prove themselves to be skillful additions to any workforce.  I have an admiration for the individuals with the commitment and raw will that it takes to be a laborer. I can’t do it; compared to the men and women in the film, my focus and will power are fleeting. It was brutal filming them prepare to work in the freezing temperatures at 3AM.  So in making a film about railroader life, I wanted to reconcile our Native histories with contemporary Navajo heroes who grind out a living everyday. People talk about having the courage to try new things, new careers, etc. But what about the courage to put in your time into one job? Yes, taking those first steps to work is important and it lifts the soul up in self-worth, but it’s the ten thousandth step that counts.

And so maybe one day the minimum for laboring 30 years outside with dangerous machines and loud noises will be decreased, because now you must meet the same qualifications as an office worker in the same company striving for retirement benefits. As a Navajo filmmaker, I want to impress upon the viewer that the next Indian you see at a gas station in oil stained clothes might be returning from a 17-hour shift that keeps the world’s largest transportation system operating.

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