Dubbing ‘Star Wars’: Preserving the force of the Navajo language
- Arizona man works with Disney to dub 'Star Wars: A New Hope' into Diné to help preserve the language
- Parallels bridge 'Star Wars' with Indigenous artists through balance, harmony and anti-imperialism
- Popularity of 'Star Wars' leads to dub of 'Finding Nemo'
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Manuelito Wheeler did not join millions of fans who packed into movie theaters in May 1977 to see the original “Star Wars.” He was only 7, and living with his family in remote Window Rock on the Navajo Nation, hundreds of miles from the nearest theater and with little knowledge of any galaxy far, far away.
Eighteen years later, Wheeler was the father of a 4-year-old son, sitting in the dim light of their living room one night watching the trilogy box set on VHS.
He wondered if “Star Wars: A New Hope,” as the original now was called, could be dubbed into Diné Bazaad, the 700-year-old language of the Navajo? There were so many parallels – of duality, of colonization, of landscape in the Indigenous land, and a force that drives people to connect through shared experiences.
Lacing a pop culture movie with Navajo voices could help preserve the Diné language that was disappearing. In 1980, 93% of Navajos spoke the native language. By 2010, U.S. Census data showed that number had dwindled to just about half of the Navajo nation, with children being the least likely to speak it.
“Star Wars” appeals to those young and old and some fans can quote the movie word-for-word. Others are at least familiar enough with the dialogue to follow along in another language.
Nearly 20 years after watching “A New Hope” for the first time, Wheeler, by then the director of the Navajo Nation Museum, headed the translation and dub of the dialogue into Diné Bazaad.
It premiered in 2013 at a dusty rodeo arena in Window Rock. Now it lives on Disney+ for subscribers worldwide.
“Part of our language revitalization process is doing movies like this, to keep our language recorded, to keep our language alive in any way possible,” said Clarissa Yazzie, who voiced Princess Leia, or Leia Organa.
Wheeler and voice actors for the lead roles say the experience will help viewers to further understand the language while underscoring its evolving nature and interlocking Navajo Nation culture.
“That’s something that I wasn’t able to participate in as a kid,” Wheeler said. “And now, I’ve helped contribute to it and become part of it. Part of that ‘Star Wars’ family.”
When droids become 'living metal'
The thought of creating a Navajo language “Star Wars” kept tugging at Wheeler after that living room viewing with his son. Sometime in 1996, he talked through the concept with his wife, Jennifer Wheeler, a linguist and Diné teacher.
He ordered the script through Amazon, which was just an online bookstore at the time, and asked his wife to translate the first 10 pages. He expected it back the next day. She returned in 10 minutes.
“That point is when I really thought, ‘This is possible,’” Wheeler recalled.
Wheeler gathered a team, and over 36 hours, often surrounded by boxes of pepperoni and cheese pizza and liter bottles of soda, they worked line-by-line, with the occasional translation question. For instance, Diné has no words for “droid” or “lightsaber.”
Droid translated to beesh hxiinaanii, or “metal that’s alive.” Lightsaber, or beeshdiin, means “sword of light."
He started reaching out to anyone associated with Lucasfilm, the movie's production company. Disney and Lucasfilm signed on.
“When Mr. Wheeler and the Navajo Nation came to us about this project, it was immediately clear that we would do it,” says Lucasfilm's senior manager of distribution operations, Michael Kohn. “It was an exciting opportunity to use Star Wars, a story inspired by many cultures and mythologies, to help the Navajo Nation bridge the older and younger generations while preserving their language for posterity. It was the highlight of my career.”
Wheeler got the yes he needed in spring 2013, along with funding for a premiere at the Navajo Nation Fair. He had just four months to pull it off.
He placed an ad for translators without saying what movie they’d be translating. He needed people who were fluent at a higher level than he was. Wheeler can speak Diné, but he can’t write it.
When five applicants arrived at the Navajo Nation Museum to get started, they were shocked to see the “Star Wars” script on the conference table in front of them. He hired all five.
The translation was more conceptual than literal – translators captured the meaning of the lines, not exact words. That’s the nature of dubbing. The translation needed an approach that got the lines correct, delivered with the right emotion and closely matched syllables.
With a full script completed, it was time to put out a call for voice actors who not only were proficient in Diné but knew how to channel their intergalactic characters. Organizers held auditions at the museum on May 4, known as “May the 4th Be With You.”
Hopeful actors first did a preliminary interview, where a panel asked questions in Diné to gauge their grasp of the language. The audition drew about 200 people, including Terry Teller, a pharmacist from Shiprock, New Mexico, who didn't expect to land a part.
But as a longtime “Star Wars” fan, he knew he had to go. He donned his Luke Skywalker cosplay and set off on the two-hour drive to Window Rock.
He didn’t stop to refuel until he was on the border of the reservation, but a freak power outage left the gas station unable to process cards. And Teller had no cash.
“I started begging people like, ‘Can I just have 10 bucks? I need to get to Navajo,’” he recalled.
Teller scraped together the cash, got to the museum on time and, to his surprise, nailed his audition. He was chosen as the voice of Luke Skywalker,
Geri Hongeva-Camarillo of Flagstaff, a media representative and mother of three, knew about the project through her work to promote the Navajo Nation Museum. She has spoken Diné fluently for most of her life – her family only spoke Navajo at home – although she can’t write the language.
She landed the part of C3PO, making Hongeva-Camarillo the first fembot in the “Star Wars” pantheon. She credits the coaching of her 16-year-old son, an avid fan of the films.
“He kept saying ‘‘Mom, you’ve got to talk Navajo but have a British accent a little bit. And then you got to be robotic,’” Hongeva-Camarillo said.
One by one, the project cast four other central voice actors. Over the next weeks, actors spent hours rehearsing and recording lines.
James Junes, the voice of Han Solo, remembers pushing himself to his limits on the first day.
“I stood there in the recording studio with just a light beaming down on a script that was written in Navajo and I don’t read Navajo,” Junes said.
He first struggled with getting the words right. After 10 hours without a steady, confident take, the producer asked whether Junes wanted to take a break.
He stepped outside and began screaming.
“I walked back into the recording studio and I had tears in my eyes,” Junes recalled.
Junes, defeated, started his drive back to Farmington. But on the way he had a revelation.
“I literally had to give myself a whole history lesson inside my head about the things that I was taught, the things that I needed to persevere through – how it’s going to help somebody, how, if I finish this, that I’ll be the part of something that’s going to be probably etched in stone for the rest of my life and for the rest of Navajo history.”
Junes asked himself: “Is it worth it? Is it everything I’ve ever wanted to do?”
The answer was yes.
When Junes returned to the recording studio at 8 the next morning, he began to find his groove.
And a few hours into the session, when the producer asked whether he wanted to take a break, he said no.
“Aadi k’ad, ashkii. Didííłdǫǫł dóó hooghanóo dooleeł. You’re all clear, kid, now let’s blow this thing and go home!”
Connecting generations at a premiere
On July 3, 2013, more than 2,000 people, many dressed in cosplay, crowded onto the Navajo Nation Fairgrounds in Window Rock for the world premier of the Diné dub. They gathered in a dusty rodeo arena and watched the film on a screen stretched out across the side of a semi-truck.
The first triumphant note of the “Star Wars” theme blasted through the speakers, and the crowd erupted, applauding. And then the first line of the movie, spoken by Hongeva-Camarillo, followed.
“Did you hear that? They shut down the main reactor. We’ll be destroyed for sure. This is madness.”
“Disínts’ą́ą́’ísh? Béésh naat’a’í bijéí deineestsiz. K’ad éí nihik’ihodoolchííł. Tsi’adeesdee’.”
Hongeva-Camarillo was nervous, worried that fans would reject a woman voicing C3PO. Instead, she heard hoots and hollers.
Yazzie sat in the crowd, too, feeling bittersweet. She watched elders and children listen to a language that connects them. When Yazzie was in high school, she was in several theater productions in Diné. Her grandmother was her biggest fan. But by the time the dubbed “Star Wars” premiered, her grandmother had lost her hearing.
Junes, too, felt excitement and pride when Han Solo first flashed on-screen, and his voice filled the arena. And though he vividly remembers his scene, it’s an image off-screen that sticks with him.
“There was a grandchild and a grandma sitting three rows up from me, watching the same movie in one language. And they both could understand it,” he said.
Junes, his voice catching as he recalls that night eight years ago, said he grew up in a violent home and overcame drug and alcohol addiction as a young adult.
Reflecting on his personal journey, Junes spoke softly.
“That’s my proudest moment,” he said.
Using TikTok to preserve language
Many Native speakers are working to make sure the next generation preserves Diné in an effort to revitalize dying Indigenous languages. The language is important not just to preserve a culture, but to move forward. A candidate for tribal president of the Navajo Nation must be able to speak Diné.
The movie’s appeal spans generations, and the translation started conversations on the tenacity of the Navajo language.
“It reopens a safe dialogue for people who don’t speak Navajo that want to learn Navajo. It reopens dialogue for fluent speakers,” Wheeler said.
From 1860 until 1978, tens of thousands of children from Native communities across the U.S. attended boarding schools where they experienced “physical, sexual, cultural and spiritual abuse and neglect,” according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. They weren't allowed to speak their existing language.
Although not every Indigenous child was sent to boarding school, the practice resulted in generations of people with little to no connection to their native tongues.
“That’s where the link was broken,” Wheeler said.
The Navajo language is traditionally passed down orally.
“We’ve learned it from our parents talking to us in Navajo, our grandparents talking to us in Navajo,” Yazzie said. “But as the generations don’t speak it, how is the language going to get passed down?”
After voicing Leia, Yazzie was inspired. She started creating short language learning videos, which she posts on TikTok alongside Star War cosplay and acting videos in Diné.
Yazzie posts basics, such as numbers and colors, and takes translation requests from followers. It’s making a difference, she said. People young and old duet her videos and follow her short lessons.
“I started using my role as Princess Leia as a pathway because that’s how people know me, that’s how people recognize me,” Yazzie said. “Now that I have your attention, let me teach you something.”
The force is with our people
Tony Thibodeau, of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, first saw the dubbed film at Indigenous Comic-Con in 2016.
He, like Wheeler, recognized its potential.
Over the next three years, Thibodeau interviewed Navajo artists inspired by “Star Wars” and curated an exhibition at the museum – “The Force Is With Our People.”
The exhibit featured works by 24 Native artists that reflect a “Star Wars” influence. Thibodeau found that “Star Wars” resonates with Indigenous artists through three themes that connect Navajo culture to a movie with an enduring impact on pop culture: force, anti-imperialism and vast open landscapes.
Part of the exhibit is still displayed, a way to emphasize to visitors that Native people and Native cultures are not frozen in time.
“You can go back and look at what this culture looked like 50 years ago, 100 years ago, but I think it’s also important to present aspects of what that culture looks like today,” he said. “Native people are as influenced by popular culture as anybody is.”
The sequel: 'Finding Nemo'
After the 2013 premiere of the dubbed “Star Wars: A New Hope,” Walmart stores across the Southwest stocked their shelves with DVDs of the movie. In the years since, it has become more difficult to snag a copy.
Some used their smartphones to record the movie from a DVD, which can sell for up to $200 online, and uploaded clips to YouTube. Thibodeau borrowed a copy from a library.
The movie now is available on Disney+, the subscriber-based streaming channel. Under the original listing of “Star Wars: A New Hope,” navigate to extras, and scroll to the end to find the translated version.
For many who live on the vast Navajo reservation, which stretches among three states, internet access is a problem.
Still, the movie engages a new dialogue for Diné Bizaad, and opens doors to expand to other movies.
Before “Star Wars” premiered on the fairgrounds back in 2013, Wheeler and the people behind the project sat in a private screening with executives at Disney Studios in Burbank. He watched as the executives saw firsthand the impact, emotion and excitement that ensued when the Navajo language filled the small theater.
“That turned into a meeting, which turned into potential for a movie,” Wheeler said.
That movie was “Finding Nemo.” It, too, now has been dubbed in Diné Bizaad and is available on Disney+.
There are aspirations for more dubbed movies. Or hope for blockbusters cast with all Navajo actors.
That will be a tough journey, Wheeler said, but Navajos know struggle well. And “Star Wars” involved difficult, hope-filled steps on paths to success.
“It was obstacles that were overcome, one after another,” Wheeler said. “And it was worth it.”
Diné translations in this story of lines voiced by Hans Solo, Princess Leia and CP3O were provided by Clarissa Yazzie.
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