New archaeology movie will feature familiar faces


A movie about a pioneering female archaeologist being filmed on the Navajo Nation will feature some familiar Diné faces, possibly including a cameo by President Jonathan Nez.

Courtesy photo | Terrance Clifford
Tatanka Means, a Chinle native, is happy to be playing a Navajo in the new film “Canyon del Muerto,” about one of the first female archeologists.

Diné actor Tatanka Means and anti-domestic violence activist John Tsosie, both originally from Chinle, will also appear in “Canyon del Muerto,” which started production Oct. 26 and will also be filmed near Gallup, in the Yucatan and other venues.

The film, written and produced by Coerte Voorhees, portrays the life of Ann Axtell Morris, one of the first female archaeologists. Axtell Morris (1900-1945) accompanied her husband Earl on archaeological excavations, including in Canyon de Chelly, Aztec Ruins and Mesa Verde, as well as the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.

She is sometimes credited as the “co-discoverer” of the Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloan culture, although Southwestern Natives might well dispute that terminology.

Axtell Morris will be played by Abigail Lawrie (“Tin Star,” “The Man with the Iron Heart”). Her husband, Earl Halstead Morris, will be portrayed by Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” franchise), according to The Hollywood Reporter.

In addition to Means, Native stars will be Wes Studi (Cherokee) and Q’orianka Kilcher (Quechua-Huachipaeri), according to the film’s IMDb entry. Also starring are Val Kilmer, Elias Koteas, Ewen Bremner, Bronson Webb and Hanako Footman.

Means, 35, plays a local guide and right-hand man to Wes Studi’s character, he said in a telephone interview. “I get to actually play a Navajo and speak Diné bizaad, which is really cool,” he said. “Last year, in ‘The Liberator’ (currently out on Netflix), I got to play a Lakota, which is my father’s tribe, so I feel really fortunate. Often as a Native actor, you’re playing someone from a different tribe.”

Means said he was really looking forward to filming in Canyon de Chelly and visiting his family, but because of the lockdown on the Navajo Nation, the location was moved to Red Rock State Park outside of Gallup.

“Film is considered an essential business in New Mexico,” he explained.

Nez has a four-line part in Diné bizaad in which he warns Earl Morris not to disturb Anasazi sites because of traditional taboos.

“Translated into English, my script reads, ‘I have no reason to take another step. They (the Anasazi) are my enemy and now they are yours as well.’”
Nez said he can relate to the part because as a child herding sheep near Shonto, Arizona, he was cautioned never to disturb Ancestral Puebloan sites. Nez said he’s not sure he’ll get to film his scene now that the venue has changed.

“Even though it’s only four lines they told me to reserve a whole day for the costume and makeup and everything,” he said. “I’m trying to run a Nation in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t think I can spare a day right now.”

Nez said he did ask the filmmakers if they would include the Navajo perspective on the ruins, and the fact that the Navajo and Hopi knew about the Ancestral Puebloans long before white archaeologists came and started digging them up — not to mention that the main reason they were so well preserved was that traditional Diné steered clear of them.

“They (the filmmakers) really seem to want to represent the Native perspective, so I appreciate that,” he said.

Means agreed. “They have some really good cultural advisers and they want to get it right,” he said.

The filmmakers are also serious about practicing COVID-19 safety protocols, according to Means. “It’s really different from what I’m used to as an actor,” he said. “Usually there’s four or five people on you all the time, fixing your makeup, offering you food, sticking a mic in front of you. For this production, we’re socially distanced from everyone and we wear our PPE until we’re actually shooting.”

Means said he isn’t sure when “Canyon del Muerto” will be out. “I assume, like everything these days, it will be on a media platform, but I can’t even tell you which one,” he said.

About The Author

Cindy Yurth

Cindy Yurth is the Tséyi' Bureau reporter, covering the Central Agency of the Navajo Nation. Her other beats include agriculture and Arizona state politics. She holds a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University with a cognate in geology. She has been in the news business since 1980 and with the Navajo Times since 2005, and is the author of “Exploring the Navajo Nation Chapter by Chapter.” She can be reached at


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