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."
The Navajo people, who once shunned the educational system of their conquerors, which imposed suppression of the Navajo language, have embraced education as their best hope of survival. They dream of sending their children off to higher education and seeing them return to become leaders in their tribal communities. Yet the reluctance of Native parents to see their children actually go--and possibly not return--and the attachment of the kids to a place and way of life that is profoundly their own, creates emotional conflicts. Even a distance of 600 miles, which is how far Thomas will be from the reservation if he attends Eastern New Mexico University, is enough to create a crisis of abandonment between Thomas and his father, Jazz. Similarly, Tamara wants to go on scholarship to four-year Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. But as much as her parents support her ambitions, they cannot bear the idea of her going so far away and urge her to attend a two-year community college that is closer by.
Add to these tensions some of the problems — broken families, substance abuse, teen pregnancy — that Thomas and Tamara see around them, and these teens carry burdens far weightier than those of most 18-year-olds. As standouts at Navajo Pine High School and steeped in a deep Navajo tradition of running, they become the objects of family and community hopes while they carry on a typical adolescent struggle to understand themselves.
Thomas has a rebellious streak, signaled by his brightly colored Mohawk haircut, which makes him easy to spot as he circles the track. He is also involved in a racially tinged conflict with one of his white teachers that almost gets him tossed off the cross-country team days before a pivotal race. Dedicated and driven, he likes to test himself against "Heartbreak Hill," the infamous ascending pass on the local cross-country course, and hopes to win a state title and a college scholarship. Yet Thomas cannot quite free himself from the mesh of a 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.
Tamara, too, is a runner and she is also senior class president and a top contender for valedictorian, completing an impressive course load that includes the Navajo language and advanced placement calculus. She is upbeat, charismatic and popular among her fellow students. Her family is happy and stable, and her parents supportive of her ambitions to pursue an engineering degree. Yet even she expresses deep ambivalence about seeking education off the reservation and, given her career prospects, of moving away for good.
What Thomas calls his love of "the mountains, the trees and the thought of being free" as he makes practice runs through the ochre, rock-faced landscape of the reservation speaks eloquently to the spiritual attachment these Native American youths have to their land and to the traditional Navajo way of life. Up Heartbreak Hill is a poignant account of how these two teenagers manage a dramatic coming of age under the long shadow of a troubled history.