Up Heartbreak Hill

Education

Up Heartbreak Hill

The hopes and heartbreaks of senior year of high school comprise a defining part of teenage life and lore in America. Graduation marks the end of childhood, partings from family, friends and community and the start of a future that is both exciting and scary. But for Thomas Martinez, a statewide high school cross-country and track star, and Tamara Hardy, an academic as well as athletic star, growing up on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico has heightened these tensions in ways particular to Native American history and contemporary reservation life. Erica Scharf's new documentary, Up Heartbreak Hill, is a chronicle of one fateful year in the lives of two talented kids who must figure out not only how to become young adults, but what it means to be both Native and modern.

At 27,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation is the largest Indian reservation in the United States, sprawling across parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Its population is approximately 300,000. The land is beautiful and harsh, with few resources to support economic development or the preservation of traditional Navajo culture, and with little economic incentive for ambitious young people to stay. As Thomas ruefully admits, "Around here, everyone thinks they live in a third-world country." In fact, his hometown of Navajo, N.M., has a per-capita income of about $6,100 a year according to the 2010 U.S. Census, and only 30% of kids graduate from high school. The juxtaposition of the land's arid beauty and the impoverished communities seen in Up Heartbreak Hill runs like an unsettling tone poem through the film. Thomas' ambition is "to go to college, come back here and make a difference for my nation."