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A new Navajo film honors Tadidinii, a larger-than-life Diné folk hero who hid out in Antelope Canyon

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Between 1863 and 1866, more than 10,000 Diné were forcibly removed during the Long Walk from their homelands in Arizona to the center of a million-acre reservation, known as Bosque Redondo, at Fort Sumner in New Mexico.

But some found refuge.

“Here, living, hiding, because all the more livable areas were being looked at,” said Logan Tsinigine as he stood inside Cardiac Canyon. “This would’ve been the main area back then to stay, because as you can see, it’s the deepest and longest.”

Tsinigine is the CFO of Taadidiin Tours, one of only 16 operators permitted to guide visitors through this natural treasure on the Navajo Nation that neighbors Utah. He used to be a senior reliability engineer at the nearby Navajo Generating Station in Page, before it shut down.

“Now the Navajo Generating Station is gone, but Antelope Canyon has replaced that,” explained Tsinigine. “A lot of the industry did depend on NGS, but you have to adapt and change.”

Shifting to support the family business, Tsinigine led a team of researchers to unearth the life story of his great-great grandfather, Tadidinii, through a new documentary titled, “Bad Indian: Hiding in Antelope Canyon,” which premiered more than 275 miles south of those sacred slot canyons at the Phoenix Film Festival on Friday, April 12.

→  Meet the director behind 'Bad Indian: Hiding in Antelope Canyon' documentary

Navajo elders were “very hesitant” to talk about bringing this “sad, tragic” tale to the silver screen, with Tsinigine adding that “they didn’t want to pass on the pain,” but “soon, it will be a point of pride for our family.”

This film tackles some serious, tough topics such as forced removal and the traumatic legacy of boarding schools. It also offers an intimate depiction of one larger-than-life Navajo legend, who evaded the Long Walk, and aided those in need upon their return.

The windy and winding Cardiac Canyon stretching for 2 and a half miles is where Tadidinii, the subject of this film, once hid out until the Navajo Treaty of 1868 was signed.

“During the Long Walk, the government had soldiers looking for all these people and you’re basically running for your life,” said Tsinigine. “This campaign of the round-up wasn’t like they hid here once, and then, those that were captured, it wasn’t a good experience for them.”

Hundreds died from the cold and starvation along the trail, as the U.S. military marched men, women and children on routes up to 450 miles. Thousands more passed away once they arrived.

But Hastiin Tadidinii — whose name translates to "Corn Pollen Man" — avoided it all, inside the dark, damp slot canyons. He became a Paul Bunyan-like folk hero to those residing in the Western Navajo Agency, including his great-great-grandson Tsinigine.

“What actually made this guy who he was, to be so big, so strong,” asked Tsinigine, “and then tough, because if you weren’t tough, then you might not survive.”

After Navajos were freed from their occupation following the 1868 treaty and finally allowed to return home, Tadidinii was waiting for them at Antelope Canyon. Lore recounts him even stewarding a flock of 1,000 sheep that he generously shared.

Generations later, his family still herd sheep, around 30 or so today.

Tadidinii and later his son, Clyde Tadytin, and rest of the Tadytins, constructed a permanent homestead that included traditional dwellings, like hogans as well as corrals and even a stone-made dam inside the desolate canyon to capture rainwater.

Without Tadidinii and his ties to these lands, Taadidiin Tours may not have been founded by Rita Tadytin-Tsinigine six years ago at Milepost 308 along State Route 98.

“I’m glad they’re good survivors,” said Tadytin-Tsinigine, “or else we wouldn’t be here.”

Now, they’re planning to launch a new tour, mapping these deeply personal spots of cultural and historical significance to this Diné family since the 1860s. And one of their extended relatives is Tadidinii’s daughter, Jeanette, who attended a boarding school in Tuba City.

She often ran away, but one day Tadidinii vowed that his daughter would never be dragged back there again, causing strained relations with the administration.

Those tensions were revealed during the “Bad Indian” film from a letter written by Walter Runke, a disciplinarian at Tuba City Boarding School, who later became superintendent of the Western Navajo Indian Agency for almost two decades.

“I would very much like to put Taddy Tin in chains on general principles as well as the fact that he’s defying me in the matter of schooling his daughter,” Runke wrote in the letter. “As soon as you get ahold of Mr. Wilson, go after Mr. Taddy Tin and bring him in, on a stretcher, if necessary. I believe every Navajo in the vicinity of Taddy Tin will be glad if we get him.”

Three men on horseback found Tadidinii inside a hogan and fatally shot him in 1916. A highly-publicized trial ensued. All three defendants were acquitted. Newspaper headlines labeled Tadidinii a troublemaker and “a bad Indian.”

“The U.S. government has told our story, and most of them are not true,” said Navajo cultural advisor Paul Begay of Taadidiin Tours. “It’s time that we told our story.”

Those slot canyons, where Tadidinii once hid out, are considered among Navajos as “extraordinary places of worship,” Begay explained, likening them to naturally-made chapels — without stained-glass windows or steeples.

“Those are our churches,” added Begay, “and the only thing we ask the visitors is that they respect [Antelope Canyon], the same way they would in their place of worship.”

Although the life of Tadidinii isn’t taught anywhere, Begay insisted it should be, and hoped this documentary will help do so.

“Imagine there’s little stories like this everywhere on the Navajo Nation that have never been told,” said Begay. “These are true stories that deserve to be in the history books.”

And like Tadidinii’s daughter, Begay also went to Tuba City Boarding School, and remembered studying instructions about Europe.

“What about the United States and my people,” asked Begay, “In hindsight, you think about why were they teaching me things that were not relevant to me?”

And yet, Tadidinii’s teachings still live on.

“Tadidinii was very well-thought-of as a true leader, because he thought about his people,” said Begay, “and so, in my mind, Rita Tadytin, Logan, being descendants of Tadidinii, carry on that legacy today. Through their warm hearts, they share a lot.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Audio from the “Bad Indian: Hiding in Antelope Canyon” documentary film in this story is courtesy of Taadidiin Tours and Point in Time Studios.

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.