A New Hope for the Navajo: Star Wars Strikes Back

Just this past June 4th, Chester Nez died. He was the last of the Navajo code talkers, one of twenty-nine heroes during WWII who developed a special code out of his Navajo language. Owing to its unique syntax, spoken tones, and lack of written language, Navajo was perfect to keep Japanese intelligence at bay during the war. How can you crack a code with no key, a language known only to insiders? Chester Nez was a hero (dive into the code talker story with the movie Windtalkers, or maybe don’t, it’s a mixed bag). But now the Navajo language is fading away, their youth uninterested in learning their ancestral language. And so it falls to Luke Skywalker and Star Wars to give the Navajo a new hope, to rediscover their native tongue with a more familiar cultural touchstone. How did this happen? Is the Force strong with this one? After the jump, the answers are.

The idea came from Manuelito Wheeler, the Director of the Navajo Nation Museum. Knowing that his people’s young folk were slow to embrace their mother tongue, he thought Star Wars would be a perfect vehicle to teach them anew, instantly familiar and exciting. Though he came up with the idea in the nineties, it took him years to get Navajo Star Wars in motion. Once Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox were onboard the fascinating undertaking took off. They found a full cast of twenty-five native Navajo speakers for all the film’s characters, and in 2013 it became the first major North American release ever to be translated into an American Indian language. From deciding to do it to its first screening was remarkably rapid, going from translating the script in April, 2013 to the debut screening two-and-a-half-months later at the beginning of July. The actual translation phase took only 36 hours, no reflection on the merits of the original script. It was done by five translators working in a number of different dialects. The finished film flows smoothly between dialects, embracing the nuances of the Navajo language.

Surprisingly, the translation only falls short in a few places. Some technical sci-fi lingo doesn’t find a corollary in Navajo, but most interestingly, the words for empire, imperial and rebel have no direct translation. Much like hearing a Quebecer hunger for “le hot dog”, those words pop up anomalously in their English diction. Guess the ideas of royalty and foreign power were never constituted in Navajo experience. Until, of course, it was much too late. Moments in the story take on added resonance, as when Luke Skywalker races back to his farm home on Tatooine to discover the charred corpses of his aunt and uncle, burned by Imperial stormtroopers. Less uncomfortably, Obi Wan Kenobi’s lectures to Luke on the Force feel earthy and warm in their native-translated delivery.

The vocal performances are first-rate, with Marvin Yellowhair’s foreboding Darth Vader and Gerri Hongeva as the ever-quizzical C3PO being the real standouts. Even Terry Teller’s Luke smooths over some of Mark Hamill’s whiny teen affectation, and Navajo comedian James Junes’s Han Solo nails Harrison Ford’s sardonic delivery (tho sadly, this is the George Lucas redux version, and Greedo shoots first). R2D2 remains R2, whistling and blooping throughout.

They might sound different, but Luke, Leia, Chewbacca and Han still wanna show you a blast

Seeing Navajo Star Wars as a white Anglo dude is pretty cool. There are few movies I’ve seen more (I think I hit 17 times in my early twenties, and that was a good while ago). It’s of course instantly recognizable, with its fantastic visuals and brilliant John Williams score. The dubbing succeeds in making its over-familiarity new again, those well-worn space Western contours given new dimension in translation. As to its native-speaker project, we can only hope Manuelito Wheeler’s brainchild succeeds. Sci-fi and fantasy narratives are inventing languages all the time. Enthusiastic fans dive deep to master the finer points of Klingon or Dothraki, how best to serve their khaleesi or toast qapla. How great would it be for Star Wars to inspire a new generation of Navajo to learn their native tongue? To them and to you, I say ats’ahoniyee’ nil holoo doo — may the Force be with you.

TIFF has a free screening of Navajo Star Wars in honour of National Aboriginal Day taking place in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this Saturday, June 21st at 3:30pm. Manuelito Wheeler, the Director of the Navajo Nation Museum, will be present to introduce the film, as will Michael Kohn, representing Lucasfilm. For more info see here.

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