Bennie Klain (2011)

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Bennie Klain (2011)

For Italian Americans and Native Americans living in and around Denver, Colorado, Christopher Columbus and the holiday honoring him are subjects of heated debate. In the new documentary, Columbus Day Legacy, Navajo filmmaker Bennie Klain presents viewers with both sides of the conflict.

Denver’s Italian Americans feel it is their right to honor Columbus, an Italian, and to celebrate his arrival to North America. The local American Indian Movement chapter is strongly opposed, and argue that Columbus should not be celebrated, for he was a wicked man who committed genocide on North America’s Indigenous population. Unwavering in their viewpoints, the disagreement goes public during the Italian Americans’ annual Columbus Day parade.     
   
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Columbus Day in 2007, Denver’s Italian Americans celebrated with an extravagant annual parade. The local American Indian Movement chapter staged an equally impressive protest, obstructing the parade and ensuring their message about Columbus’ infamy against humanity would not be forgotten amidst the celebration.

In the days leading up to the 2007 parade showdown, Klain and his two film crews embedded with the Native American and Italian Americans to thoroughly capture both viewpoints in an unbiased manner.  

“There was an intense passion on both sides, and so I knew we were going to capture something really intense,” he said.

Despite his Indigenous heritage, Klain was determined to present both sides equally, and to remain neutral throughout the making of Columbus Day Legacy.  

“People expect me to side with the Native American side but I always go out of my way to capture the other side of the argument,” Klain said.

Klain’s philosophy of telling both sides of the story is deeply rooted in his identity as a filmmaker. Klain and his producer Leighton C. Peterson co-founded TricksterFilms, LLC, a film production company paying homage to Trickster Coyote, the mythical Native American creation story character. Trickster Coyote, Klain said, has both a good heart and a bad heart, and he goes back and forth between the two based on his given situation, similar to how a person behaves.  

“In the end, he (Trickster Coyote) always shows a certain empathy and humanity,” Klain said. “I thought, if we can capture the humanity on both sides of this (Columbus Day) debate, we’ve done our job.”

Despite the bipolar viewpoints captured in Columbus Day Legacy, Klain believes there is an all encompassing, albeit subtle message that transcends the surface level conflict.

“Both sides suffered at the hands of America, and both sides suffered through serious genocide,” he said, referencing the Sand Creek Massacre for Native Americans and the Ludlow Massacre for Italian Americans, both of which were initiated by the U.S. Army. “Is our country so screwed up that these two groups can’t see that they have a lot in common?”  

“What started to emerge in the editing process was that the film became less and less about the nature of the conflict and it holds a mirror up to America, and it says ‘this is how you treat your ethnic minorities,’” Klain said. “I see it as an indictment of America.”

Klain began his media career as a summer college intern for radio station KGHR in Tuba City, Arizona. He loved radio, and quit taking classes to pursue a full-time job as station programmer, much to the dismay of his mother.  

Klain, a fluent speaker of Navajo, later took a job as a Navajo newscaster at radio station KTNN in Window Rock, Arizona. He credits his work as a newscaster for giving him the ability to easily organize random information into a story. After developing an ulcer from the stress of newscasting, Klain enrolled in the film program at the University of Texas at Austin.   

“Initially I learned how to tell stories using just audio, and I think the natural next step for me was to add the video element,” he said.

Klain directed the award-winning PBS documentary Weaving Worlds and co-produced The Return of Navajo Boy, an award-winner and 2000 selection of the Sundance Film Festival. He is currently working on Road Man, a film about the Native American Church on Navajo land.

Columbus Day Legacy, won "Best Documentary Short" at the 2011 36th Annual American Indian Film Festival. It is now available on DVD at visionmaker.org.

Written by Ben Kreimer.

Interviews conducted and edited by Ben Kreimer.

 
 

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