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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 24, 2004 - Issue 105


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Aspiring actress overcomes doubts, barriers

by Jan-Mikael Patterson - The Navajo Times
credits: photo - Kelly R. Vallo

Kelly R. ValloCHINLE - Kelly R. Vallo had a dream six years ago to become an actress. No one took her seriously, not even her parents.

"I used to tell people I was going to be on TV," she said and the response she got was a snicker from her classmates and friends.

Despite the lack of faith, her dream came true.

With three films tacked onto her resume along with countless modeling stints, she is working to pursue her dream to be cast in a major motion film. And she got her first big job with a film shot recently in the Salt Lake City area.

Vallo was cast in the movie "Edge of America," an independent film directed by Chris Eyre. Eyre directed "Smoke Signals" (1997) and "Skins" (2002).

Vallo had a speaking role in the movie with fellow Native American actors and actresses like Irene Bedard, Wes Studi, Steve Reevis and Cody Lightning.

The movie is about a basketball team on the Navajo Reservation and Vallo's character, Raylene, is a rebellious teen on the team. She ends up quitting.

Raised in Chinle, Vallo, 20, is originally from Nazlini, Ariz. She is currently on break from Diné College. Her mother is Maureen Begay and her stepfather is Jackson Begay. She has one older brother, Brian L. Begay.

She is Todichii'nii (Bitterwater Clan) born for Acoma Pueblo. Her maternal grandparents are Deeschii'nii (Start of the Red Streaked People) and her paternal grandparents are of the Sun People.

Her thespian journey began when she was 14 years old attending Chinle High School. Her drama teacher, Ken Van Pelt, motivated her to strive for the best and to keep acting. So she did.

"He told me 'You have a talent for acting, stay with it,'" Vallo recalled. "He motivated me to keep going."

She graduated from high school in May 2001. After high school she began auditioning for roles in movies shot on the reservation. She recalled one audition for a short film shot in Kayenta.

"There was a Native American music festival going in Tsaile," Vallo said. "I auditioned for the film there. It was a Navajo-speaking role only. I didn't think I had a chance. The director was Norman Brown. It was a film based on domestic violence."

She said she was confident about the role because she could speak fluently in Navajo. Out of many girls trying for the role, she was given a call a week later telling her she got the part.

Her character was Elaine, a young lady involved in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend. The film was titled "Yil Neh Bah" and was filmed in June 2001.

Vallo's second film and leading role was for a movie called "Adaa'a'hojilya." She played a pregnant woman with diabetes. Her character was Irene and the film was shot in Chinle in December 2002. Brown also directed the film.

After shooting the film in Kayenta she was invited to Frog Lake/Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, for modeling. It was there that she was introduced to the industry that most people do not see.

"It opened my eyes to a whole new world of the film industry and model industry, what to expect, the business and the whole background," she said. "It's brutal being an actress trying to make it in the film industry.

"You have to be more Native American than Native American and you have to be more Anglo than Anglo," she said. "You have to fit more in the mainstream society."

She said that Native Americans are still stereotyped in the film industry.

Native Americans are envisioned as people who wear buckskin clothing, always seek the spiritual path, or as alcoholics or warriors. She said the film industry always overemphasizes Indian cultures.

"The film industry can never make a reality (based) film," Vallo said.

"Except for one. It's called 'Grand Avenue.' I think that's based on reality, Native Americans trying to fit into the world, the mainstream society.

"That was a good movie based on Native American life," she added.

"Grand Avenue" (1998), an HBO film, is a drama about four Native American families living in Santa Rosa, Calif. who try to maintain their tribal roots while living away from their reservations. The film was directed by Daniel Sackheim and is based on a book by Greg Sarris, a Native American from Santa Rosa, Calif.

There have been Navajo actresses who had roles in some major films in the past. Serene Hedin played Tashina in the movie "Windwalker" (1980).

"(Hedin) didn't have a speaking role but she was the lead female actress," Vallo said.

Another Navajo actress played a small role in "Geronimo: An American Legend" (1993) as an Apache woman who watches the hanging of her husband.

After coming home from Canada, she was invited to the Native Indian Market in Scottsdale where she modeled for designer Tammy Deauvais.
"People called me telling me that they were doing shows (in Scottsdale), in Phoenix and Albuquerque," she said. "That's when my whole career, business career took off."

Along the way she met with Leroy Dejolie, a photographer from the Navajo Reservation. Dejolie now sponsors Vallo and helped her prepare for a whole new experience.

"He introduced me to the backstage and modeling circuit," she said. "He helped me establish my career and showed me how to make a portfolio. And he did this all on his own time.

"I only model traditional and contemporary Indian fashion," she said. "I'm not a calendar girl. I don't want to offend anybody in calendars and what not."

She said the reason she chose not to be in calendars is the traditional teachings of her grandparents. She respects her people and does not want to portray Navajo women in a disrespectful manner that differs from the teachings.

She also said that in historical times Navajo women were not seen as models and did not conduct themselves in such a manner.

"I think that models are beautiful," she said. "Really, they are. More power to them for trying to rise up in the industry."

She said in the modeling world there are different types of modeling.
"There's the contemporary modern model, traditional contemporary fashion, traditional model, calendar girls, editorial models - a whole line of models," she said.

"Right now anybody can call themselves models," Vallo said. "Any young beautiful lady who believes she's beautiful can call herself a model. You don't need pictures to know you're a model. You don't need an agent or a headshot to be a model.

"If you know you're beautiful then you're a model," she added. "Back in the day you had to audition to be known as a model. Right now with Native Americans being so popular these days, it's easy to get work as a model."

One of her most notable modeling stints was for the QVC television network. She modeled jewelry crafted by silversmith Ray Tracey.

"Again, hundreds of women from the Navajo Reservation and other nations auditioned," she said. "I was lucky to get it."

Vallo is taking a break from her career to take classes at Diné College. She plans to audition for more movies in the future but is currently spending time with her grandparents, Annie Rose and Sammie Walker Sr. of Chinle, and other family.

Vallo hopes to break the stereotypes of Native Americans in Hollywood. She hopes that more Navajos and Native Americans will emerge in the acting industry. Currently there are still non-Navajo people playing Navajo roles and Navajos are only cast as extras in films.

"We have a lot of good native talent," she said.

One of her biggest dreams is to host NBC-TV's "Saturday Night Live."

She said with dedication and patience, some day she will.

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