Hollywood meets Tséyi'
Local response varies on 'Lone Ranger' filming
By Cindy Yurth
CANYON DE CHELLY, Ariz., April 19, 2012
W hen White Corn Woman returned from the Long Walk, she hiked up Canyon de Chelly, looking for a place to call home.
About eight miles in, she found a lovely side canyon protected from view by a giant sandstone column.
There was a spring, a trail to the rim, and a nice, flat flood plain perfect for growing squash, beans, and, presumably, white corn.
White Corn Woman would have lived to see the invention of the motion picture, but she probably never imagined that one would some day be filmed in her beloved canyon, and that her descendants would play a part in it.
This week, two of her great-great-granddaughters tended a fire for warmth and cooking at the entrance to her canyon, within sight of where the family matriarch is buried under a big patch of cholla that blooms brilliant magenta in June.
They had been hired by a security company to guard the entrance to the canyon, now a set for "The Lone Ranger," and a long snake of electrical cords that will attach to a generator for lighting and other equipment.
"We're not very good security guards," admitted Rhonda Lomakema.
"We're too nice," explained Velena Tsosie.
"Our dad is even worse than us," Lomakema added. "He's nicer."
Their dad, Oscar Bia, is not only nice but extremely hard working. Earlier that afternoon, he had led a trio of "Lone Ranger" wranglers in on horseback to measure the time it took to ride a horse out to the location.
Then he had hurried back to get his four-wheel-drive to haul a trio of tourists from New Jersey to Spider Rock. (That's his day job, proprietor of Canyon Ancient Jeep Tours.) Then he had headed back to the "Lone Ranger" base camp to pick up a couple of production assistants and ferry them around.
When a huge Hollywood production comes to a place like Chinle, it's almost like a war zone. About a hundred trailers are clustered at the edge of town, and all the local motels are full of movie people as well.
They've brought in all their own food, to the dismay of locals who were hoping to catch a glimpse of a famous face at The Junction or Garcia's. And they've pressed the park rangers, many of the local tour guides, and a good number of canyon families into service.
The filming locations are well secured, and all the locals working with the production have signed non-disclosure documents that they are taking very seriously.
But we were able to learn a few things about the star of the show, Johnny Depp, who plays the Lone Ranger's faithful Indian companion, Tonto.
1. Like many movie stars, he is surprisingly short.
2. He is not a great horseback rider. According to locals on the scene, he has fallen off his horse at least twice.
Even Bia, who is back and forth to base camp several times a day and allowed on all the sets, hasn't seen much of Depp.
"When he's not on camera, he hides," Bia said. "I don't blame him. He's trying to get ready to play a role. He doesn't need a bunch of people clustered around him asking for autographs."
Reaction to the Hollywood infestation is mixed, to say the least. Half the town appears to be haunting the overlooks at Canyon de Chelly with long lenses trained on the production camp in Tunnel Canyon, hoping against hope for a glimpse of Depp in his raven hat.
"I would literally do anything to meet him," sighed a middle-aged woman at White House Overlook. "I mean anything."
Then there are those who seriously could not care less ... or so they say.
"I haven't seen him, and I don't care," declared Winnie Henry, a jewelry vendor at White House Ruin. "I'll see him when I watch the movie."
"He could come right up and buy a piece of jewelry from me, and I wouldn't know him," chimed in her neighbor.
"That's what we say," said painter Doug Yazzie, who was selling some of his landscape miniatures in front of the ruin. "But if he came here, we'd line up for autographs like everybody else."
Henry said some of the production crew wanders up to buy jewelry on their breaks, but they never purchase anything expensive.
"They're cheap," she said. "They say, 'We're not movie stars, we just work for them.' They all want discount."
On the other hand, some crewmembers say the townies see them coming.
"We went to get a haircut, and my buddy made the mistake of telling them we were from the movie," said Red, a driver. "I got a $10-dollar haircut for $20."
The crew reportedly will pull up stakes and return to Monument Valley this weekend to get some shots that were canceled by last Saturday's blizzard, then return to Canyon de Chelly and film until Wednesday.
The weather has been beautiful since they arrived Sunday, but the wash through the canyon is flowing, which makes driving tricky for big rigs filled with heavy camera equipment. One got stuck Monday and had to be pulled out by one of the Thunderbird Lodge's Unimogs (which have also been pressed into service to carry crewmembers in and out of the canyon).
"Some of the directors took off on their own and got stuck too," Bia said. "That's why they need us. You have to know how to drive around here."
But his daughters say locals aren't immune from the vagaries of the canyon floor.
"We got stuck today too," confessed Lomakema. "We went over there to dump ashes, got about four inches off the road and sunk up to our axles in sand."