Tribute: Gawds

Native American teen life, graffiti and spirituality collide in this documentary short from Christine Yuan

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As a college student, filmmaker Christine Yuan would head up to the Navajo reservation in Arizona to build a youth centre for bored and wayward kids on the Rez: teenagers like GAWDS, also known as Colin, who kills time before he turns 18 by hopping over fences to tag old buildings and spraypaint murals. Part of AG Rojas and Vince Haycock's accalimed TRIBUTE documentary series from Mainline, Gawds is an intimate, unvarnished glimpse into GAWDS's life as he opens up on camera about doing jail for property damage, becoming a man in Native American culture, and his love for Pow Wow dancing. Below the cut, Yuan talks about meeting GAWDS and filming on the Rez. 

Dazed Digital: How did you find GAWDS and gain access to the reservation?

Christine Yuan: Back in college, my roommate’s brother started a group called Project Pueblo that travelled out to the Navajo Nation in Window Rock, Arizona a couple times a year. We would tutor kids, hang out, and at the time, helped build a youth centre in Fort Defiance, a small town about 16 miles away from Window Rock. When the idea struck to make this Tribute, I contacted the Rio Puerco youth center that I had helped build. Alex Froom, the managing director there reached out to several kids who I contacted on the phone. I did a bunch of phone interviews and actually set out to Arizona thinking I would profile someone other than Colin (gawds).

DD: What was it about GAWDS that made you know he was the one you wanted to profile?

Christine Yuan: When we got to the Rez, Colin was the first teen I met and talked to. We hit it off right away, I think because he sort of reminded me of myself. When I was 16, I was often unsupervised and bored and would get into trouble because of it. I saw the same in Colin. He had all this time and imagination on his hands, but really no guidance on how to channel it. I really connected to that.

DD: What was the filming process like?

Christine Yuan: The filming process was fun because it was so immersive. From Los Angeles, me and my camera team, Lili and Phil, packed the car and drove 10 hours to Fort Defiance. The first night there, we went out tagging with Colin and his friends. I think that’s what really fast tracked our relationship. He saw how committed we were to following him, scaling buildings and climbing roofs. He was like, “Damn, ya’ll are crazy too.” 

DD: Did you ask him to show you an example of the dancing, or was that his idea? 

Christine Yuan: From our first meeting, Colin had revealed that he loved Pow Wow dancing. He is extremely shy, so I knew it would be difficult to get him to just dance in front of us with the cameras on. Our third day on the Rez, he invited us into his home where he showed us his Pow Wow regalia and uniform. From just simply speaking about it, I could see that he was really proud about his Pow Wow practice. From there, the conversation naturally evolved into him putting the Pow Wow uniform on and showing us a little dance. I had to kinda coax it out of him, but we had been hanging out with him so I think a trust had been built. 

DD: Anything you want to add about the reservation?

Christine Yuan: The Rez is both an extremely beautiful and desolate place. There is so much life there, yet at the same time, a huge lack of resources. Places like the Rio Puerco youth center exist to provide more opportunities and supportive spaces for the Navajo youth. If you feel inspired by their mission, please visit www.rezrefuge.org.

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