Welcome to this week’s installment of Geek Girl Authority Indigenerd Wire, wherein we shine a spotlight on the indigenous people in pop culture. This bi-monthly column will feature the people, shows, movies, art and books that celebrate the progress of indigenous perspectives in mainstream pop culture.

atsʼáhoníyééʼ nił hólǫ́ǫ doo (May the Force be with you.)

It’s customary to dub popular films in other languages for release overseas, but the films shown in America are primarily spoken in English. When native languages are featured in a television show or movie, it is often limited and Lakota. In 2013, someone came up with the idea to dub over a science fiction movie in the Diné Bizaad or Navajo language. That movie is Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope!

Indigenous peoples are no strangers to the geekdom. In fact, my dad was a big influence on my geekiness. It was his love for Star Trek and Doctor Who that made me the Indigenerd that I am today. So it should come as no surprise that Star Wars is a favorite among Natives. 

This is not a remake of the film Star Wars. The film looks the same and most of the sound effects are the same, but the dialogue is 100% Diné Bizaad. This is the first time a popular film has been remastered like this. And the Navajo Nation are the first people to get such a treat. 

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Native languages are in danger of being lost forever. Tribal nations across the United States are looking for innovative ways to get their youth interested in the language. Tribal immersion schools are being established to teach young children their native languages so it stays a part of their everyday life. Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation museum saw a need for something different. 

Photo by Tristan Ahtone
“Star Wars” character Boba Fett in front of the Navajo Nation seal.

Wheeler told NPR , the initial idea was to use the project to promote the language and culture and as a way to save the language. “There are definitely Star Wars nerds out there who can repeat that movie verbatim, and they speak no Navajo. And so when they’re watching this and it’s in Navajo, it’s them learning Navajo.” Wheeler teamed up with Navajo Parks and Recreation to approach Lucasfilm about the translation in April of 2013. They got the green light and began translating the script, which wasn’t easy. 

Jennifer Wheeler, assistant professor at the University of New Mexico in Gallup worked on the translation so that the Diné language would fit with the original pace of the film. It’s one thing to have the same basic vocabulary, but indigenous languages will sometimes describe one object with multiple words. Manuelito Wheeler told NPR,”…the trick was choosing from the variety of definitions that the group came up with. So for example: ‘robot.’ It’s a thinking machine; a machine that thinks for itself.”

Sǫʼtah Anah (Star Wars)

The Navajo version of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope debuted at the Navajo Nation fair in July of 2013. The reception was astounding. The Navajo people are very proud of this accomplishment, as they should be. They screened the film across the nation for others to experience. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, the language has seen a rebound.  The Diné Bizaad language is now the most commonly spoken Indigenous language in the United States.

In 2016, the Navajo Nation worked with Pixar to dub Finding Nemo or “Nemo Hádéést’į́į́”.  Wheeler told The Hollywood Reporter that he knew they needed something to get kids interested in the language, that’s why they chose a children’s movie for the second translation project. All roles in both films were spoken by members of the Navajo Nation.  

I swear I heard an Ewok say the Diné greeting “Yá’át’ééh,” once. This makes me hopeful that other tribes with strong language programs will consider the same concept, but maybe with another film. With today’s technology, it’s easy to find a native language dictionary with the pronunciation of the words, but if you are not speaking it, you’re not retaining it. And reciting a beloved film in my native language would be an easy and fun way to practice. 

A’he’heh! atsʼáhoníyééʼ nił hólǫ́ǫ doo 

(Thank you! May the Force be with You)

Catch up on all GGA Indigenerd Wire posts here!



Noetta Harjo
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