Ramona Emerson and Kelly Byars


Ramona Emerson and Kelly Byars

From Tohatchi, New Mexico, on the Navajo Reservation, Ramona Emerson (Diné) is a filmmaker who received her degree in Media Arts from the University of New Mexico in 1997 and has worked as a professional videographer, writer, and editor. Over her thirteen-year career, Emerson has received support from the State of New Mexico, National Geographic, Sundance Institute, and the Ford Foundation. She and her husband, producer/actor/artist Kelly Byars (Choctaw/Chickasaw) continue to produce films through their company Reel Indian Pictures in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The duo met in 1985 when Emerson, at 11-years-old, sat in the audience of a talent show Byars had entered.  With two great steps, Byars, then a classical ballet dancer, leapt over a standing woman by doing the splits midair. This marked the first time Emerson saw him. Nine years later the two met once more, but this time Emerson “lassoed him,” and they produced their first movie together by 1997. 

Emerson and Byars are in production with the Vision Maker Media-supported film The Mayor of Shiprock, a documentary film for Public Television. They applied to the Vision Maker Media Public Media Content Fund in 2012 and were awarded production funding.

The idea for the documentary came when Emerson met then 18-year-old Graham Beyale on a movie set.  Emerson heard word that Beyale was starting a community service movement among the young people in Shiprock.  After inquiring from Beyale himself, who told her about the various events he had hosted, Emerson and Byars discussed the possibility of making his story a documentary.  Ultimately they decided filming Beyale and the young people helping him would be a great thing. 

The film follows the lives of the group of young adults and how their love of each other, of their families, and of their community have made real change in a Native community.

Ranging in age from 16 years to 26 years, the group of 40-50 members is made up of Navajo and non-Navajo community members. Their mission is to make noticeable change to inspire change in their community.

The Northern Diné Youth Committee (NDYC) came to be over three years ago and was founded by a young Navajo man, Graham Beyale. Beyale, with help from his sister, began to realize that the only way to make change in their community was to make changes themselves and hope that others begin to become part of the process. Home after his first year of college, Beyale noticed the need to make change. Beginning with a small drive-in movie for kids in Nizhoni Park, the community began to come together. This led to more events and activities almost entirely created and carried out by Beyale, his family, and a few friends. Beyale’s family, overloaded with most of the financial and participatory responsibilities finally advised Graham that it was time to make the community a part of this effort.

The changes have a lot of support in the community. Even Shiprock’s Chapter President was impressed and inspired by the efforts of the youth in his community as he discussed the fact that the NDYC had inspired similar grass roots efforts around the Navajo Nation and expressed his wishes for a longer sustained effort around the Navajo Nation.

The NDYC continue to develop ideas, utilize tools, and seek inspiration to bring back to their community and implement. Look for the The Mayor of Shiprock on PBS in fall 2014.

Written by Georgiana Lee.

Interviews were conducted by Georgiana Lee and edited by Jessica Gibbs.

SAY Magazine
Native Oklahoma
Support Native Films