Watching Star Wars in Navajo

This is a guest post from ASU professor of English Laura Tohe, writing about the July 3, 2013 unveiling of Star Wars: A New Hope dubbed into the Navajo language, or Diné bizaad, in Window Rock, Arizona. The project was coordinated by Manuel Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum. Laura has been kind enough to share her photos from the event as well – click on the thumbnails below to see them full-size!

If you ever wondered what Star Wars would sound like in the Navajo language, a viewing of George Lucas’s epic original Star Wars was the place to find out.  I left Yuma, Arizona to make the 8-hour drive to Window Rock, Arizona where the film showed at the annual Navajo Nation’s 4th of July celebration.  The irony didn’t escape me that this holiday marked the beginning of the diminishing of Indigenous languages as one casualty of assimilation.  I arrived around 6pm and drove past the carnival rides and parking lot, not yet full, and checked into my motel.  I was home to the cracked sidewalks and rutted street, the one McDonald’s fast food and traffic light, the pickup trucks, SUVs, and economy cars, and the red rocks standing east of the fair grounds.  Home is also stew, fry bread, and tortillas made by our mothers’, aunts’ and grandmas’ hands.  I settled for the motel’s version instead.

I paid my $4 parking fee and parked near the carnival rides already full of squealing teens swinging in metal containers.  After a short walk, I saw the sign for general admission and stood in line outside the rodeo arena.  After 15 minutes the gates opened and we made our way to the wooden benches.  The Navajo or Dine, The People, as we also call ourselves, made up the audience of middle-agers, a few elders with their grandchildren or spouses, teens and families with their young children and babies.  A long semi truck entered with the screen attached to its side and stopped in the middle of the arena.  White fold-up chairs suddenly appeared in neat rows below the screen.  Excitement filled the air.

Since April when the voice auditions were held, I looked forward to seeing Star Wars dubbed into the Navajo language, the language my family taught me and communicated in.  From the 1940s and through part of the 1970s Navajo students, including myself, were forbidden to speak our first language in the reservation schools.   During WWII the Navajo Code Talkers devised an unbreakable military code in the Navajo language that the Japanese cryptographers never deciphered.  Now in the capital of the Navajo Nation in 2013, we awaited an historic showing of the first ever Navajo-dubbed language into one of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters franchises!

As the sun set and the sky turned a darker blue, a cooler temperature pervaded the open-air arena.  My thoughts turned to the making of the film—how would Star Wars sound in Navajo?  What would Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker sound like speaking Navajo?  How would “May the force be with you” be translated?  Suddenly Darth Vader, the Storm Troopers, Luke Skywalker and various Star Wars characters entered the walkway.  Waves of laughter and cheers arose.  Cameras flashed and clicked.  Everyone wanted their photo taken with them, including myself.  I managed a photo op with the young man who won the part of Luke Skywalker, Terry Teller, a recent graduate with a pharmacy degree.   His sister stood next to him and was obviously proud of her brother.  Then another wave of cheering arose when Star Wars appeared in large letters on the portable screen.

Such public excitement hadn’t occurred since Wind Talker, the film that was supposedly about the Navajo Code Talkers.  The man next to me showed me a t-shirt he had bought by an independent entrepreneur.  A Storm Trooper mask with the Navajo Nation logo was stamped on the forehead.  It read, “These Aren’t the Dine We Are Looking For.”

As the big moment drew closer, we were invited to move to the white chairs by Manuel Wheeler, Director of the Navajo Nation Museum, who had reached out to Lucasfilms Ltd. with the idea to dub this film as a way to interest the Dine youth to learn and preserve the Navajo language.   Elder Dine who still speak primarily the Navajo language could also see a film spoken entirely in the Navajo language for the first time.  Introductions of the translators and actors followed.  All of the translators and cast members spoke fluent Navajo, which was a requirement for each role.

With the introductions over, we settled in with a free bag of popcorn and waited with eager anticipation to hear Navajo spoken in the first film of the Star Wars franchise.   In 1977 when it first debuted, I stood in the line to buy tickets.  People around me raved about the film.  My brother saw it over six times before it closed.  The arena lights dimmed and another cheer rose.  I joined in this time.  Suddenly Navajo text moved vertically across the screen.  “In a galaxy far, far away” brought even louder cheers and clapping that lasted several minutes.  I looked around and saw nothing but smiles and laughter.  Our language, the Navajo language, Dine bizaad, an organic, living language was alive in a Hollywood film.  This time no feathers, “ughs,” and breach-cloth-wearing Indians whooped across the screen.

Then the first Navajo words were spoken and the cheering was so loud, you couldn’t hear the next several lines of dialogue.  More laughter ensued during a shoot-out scene.  Characters were giving or taking orders in Navajo.  It wasn’t a comical scene but it was a moment that brought complete joy to the audience.  To hear the Navajo language spoken for the first time in a science fiction/science fantasy was truly a moment to remember and record in our oral stories.  It was a moment of pure celebration of the Navajo language.   For a fleeting second I could imagine that Star Wars was originally filmed in the Navajo language.  No Hollywood film has ever been dubbed in the Navajo language, though our language has been used in John Ford’s films and in Wind Talker.  And this was no old-time Hollywood western.

After awhile we became accustomed to hearing Navajo spoken and laughed when we heard slang terms.  Obi-Wan Kenobi seemed the most realistic character as the wise elder.   Stories of traveling into celestial spaces are not new to the Dine.  It is said that twin heroes traveled upon a rainbow into space to look for their father, who at first denied they were his sons.  Luke Skywalker must learn to use the force and the light saber, while the hero twins were given powerful tools to overcome dangerous obstacles and enemies before making the world safe.  The Navajo people have always observed celestial movements and given names to star patterns and to the Milky Way.  Star patterns play an important role in the ceremonial life of the Navajo people.  Moon formations and eclipses tell when opportune times exist and foretell catastrophes.

By the time the film ended a slight summer chill had descended upon us.  It was past 11 pm when the lights came on.  More applause and cheers followed from a crowd that had thinned considerably.  The evening ended with autograph signings.  I spoke with a Navajo woman who told me she enjoyed the film and thought the audience did too.   At any rez crowd, one always finds a friend or relative.  Star Wars translator and my former student, Jennifer Wheeler, came over to say hello.   She holds a Ph.D in English and is the wife of Manuel Wheeler.

The translations began on a Friday and by Sunday evening Jennifer and the second translator completed the work.  Several more translators were hired to coach and teach the actors their lines, as a few were not literate in the Navajo language.  A challenge the translators overcame was to decide which of the various dialects spoken on the reservations to use.  When the Navajo language dubbing didn’t sync smoothly with the original Star Wars actors’ mouth movements, extra Navajo syllables were cut.  All of this took place in a matter of several weeks so that it would be ready for the July 3rd viewing.

Since the film dubbing was financed by the Navajo Nation Museum and other tribal organizations, Lucas Films could not charge for tickets or create film merchandise.  Would there be more translations for the other Star Wars films?  I asked Jennifer.  At this point, it’s only talk, she explained.  We both agreed that it would be wonderful if more dubbings in the Navajo language came forth.  Of course, I had to ask her how to translate “May the force be with you.”  I liked her translation.  Like the various Navajo dialects, there are many ways to translate it.  What’s most important though is that any language, indigenous or not, is always one generation away from becoming extinct if the language is not spoken and passed on.  Fortunately, a reversal of the diminishing of tribal languages is taking place on the Navajo reservation schools, colleges, and universities in the Southwest.  Tonight was truly a celebration of the power and vitalization of the Navajo language in one of the most the iconic films of the 20th century.  Of all the emotions the audience may have felt, perhaps joy topped the list.  Tonight that force prevailed with the audience.

With two signed posters in hand, I made my way out of the space where magic and fantasy had whisked us away for a fleeting moment.  The carnival lights and noise silenced, I looked up to see stars and the moon.