Star Wars in Navajo, Finally in Santa Fe

Casey St. Charnez - April 14, 2014

'I don’t know how to say “May The Force be with you” in Diné…but I shall find out soon.'

One of the coolest movie ideas ever unspools Friday April 18 at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.

It’s Star Wars, the 1977 classic, newly dubbed into the Navajo language, with writer-producer-director George Lucas’ blessing.

A joint effort by Lucasfilm (which made it), 20th Century-Fox (which distributed it), and Deluxe Laboratories (which donated computers and audio equipment), with the input and cooperation of the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock and Knifewing Productions in Gallup, the translated film at last is receiving its long-awaited Santa Fe premiere.

The brainchild of the Navajo Nation Museum, it has been quick to see the light of the projector. Over the May 2-4 weekend last year, Knifewing held auditions for native speakers to enact aurally the iconic roles of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Obi-wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, and C-3PO (Chewbacca the Wookie and R2-D2 didn’t need an interpreter).

Under the watchful eye—and ear—of Navajo Nation Museum director Manuelito Wheeler, himself a language instructor whose father was a Code Talker, over a hundred eager actors tried out. Alongside Wheeler, ADR (automated dialogue replacement) director Ellyn Stern Epcar cast 70 voice performers, who speak 5 distinct dialects in the movie.

At the time, Wheeler described Star Wars (officially, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) as “one of the best movies of all time.” Soundstage owner Knifewing Segura said, “I’m not such a big fan…but I do know the magnitude it will have.” Lucasfilm spokesperson Lynne Hale felt that “Youth around the world have been inspired by the theme…that every individual has the power within them to become a hero. We are thrilled that the youth of the Navajo Nation will now see the film in their native tongue."
Although the film has been translated into 50 languages, it is the first time that a major title has re-debuted in a Native American tongue.

The finished product premiered last July at the Navajo Nation Museum, but the first big public screening came November 16 as a presentation of the Gallup Film Festival at the 471-seat El Morro Theater, the only remaining movie theater in town, built in 1928 and restored in 1991.

The annual fest’s mission statement--“to bring the surrounding Gallup communities together to be entertained by the films that made us fall in love with The Movies”--evoked the appeal of Star Wars, for sure. Accordingly, the one-time-only event drew an SRO crowd for the 9pm show.

Since then, the reworking, based on the 1997 Special Edition with its controversially updated CGI effects, has been shown at the Smithsonian, as well as in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kansas, Utah, and at the 38th annual American Indian Film festival in San Francisco.

Audiences have discovered a new resonance in the narrative. Luke’s discovery of his murdered family recalls the scorched-earth policy of the U.S. government in the 19th century. Certainly, Obi-wan’s counsel on using The Force ties in directly to First Nation spirituality and mysticism. Plus, the concept of the hero twins is relevant in many cultures, be it tribal or interstellar. 

The prints in circulation come complete with English subtitles, but the dubbing is reported to be immaculate. Unlike, say, badly synched Hong Kong chopsocky flicks, not only was the script vetted for linguistic accuracy, but the new dialogue was also cued to the original actors’ lip movements.

Personally, I think the subtitles could turn out to be a mistake, and that they might detract from what would have been a far more immersive and intuitive experience. But we shall see.

Now, all this is coming from a person who thinks that Star Wars is simply the greatest movie ever made.

But I’m no fanatic. I have no collectibles like posters or autographed scripts. I never search eBay for action figures. I don’t haunt the chat rooms of the obsessed. I just love the movie. That’s why when I saw the brief notice in the Santa Few New Mexican about the upcoming shows, I called immediately for reservations, only to learn that I was the first person to phone.

Well, of course.

The Diné version shows at 1pm and 6pm only. The Museum has only limited seating available in its Kathryn O’Keefe room, under 100 seats, so dialing (505) 476-1269 is a must if you want to go.

The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture—which has just opened its fabulous turquoise exhibit—is up on Museum Hill, at 710 Camino Lejo, just off Old Santa Fe Trail.

NM Foundation members get in free, while state resident admission is $6, and out-of-staters pay $9.

Check out for more info.

I don’t know how to say “May The Force be with you” in Diné…but I shall find out soon.

We all will.