When Clarissa Yazzie’s 8-year-old son asked her what tribe he and his dad belonged to, she was taken aback. They are both Navajo. But he didn’t see how that was possible.
“‘No mom, we’re not Navajo. We don’t speak the language.’”
A Navajo-dubbed version of “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” — starring Yazzie as Princess Leia — will show 7 p.m. Friday at the Natural History Museum of Utah, with the aim of easing her son’s philosophical conundrum: How can a culture survive without its language?
For years, Navajo Nation members were dissuaded from speaking Navajo at Americanized boarding schools, and Yazzie thinks it’s partially their conditioning and partially disaffection among segments of today’s Navajo youth that have led the language’s usage to fade in recent years.
“Star Wars” is an attempt to, well, fight back. It’s believed to be the first major motion picture ever translated into Navajo (in 1994, Disney’s “Bambi” was released in Arapaho).
“I believe that a culture’s essence, it’s soul, lies within the language,” said Navajo Nation Museum director Manuelito Wheeler, who himself feels guilty that he isn’t fluent. “When the language goes, a huge chunk of the culture goes.”
Wheeler’s ambitious project has been roughly four years in the making. He wanted to find a way to preserve the Navajo language — also known as Dine — that would transcend generational boundaries, and to do that by dubbing a ubiquitous film. “Star Wars” fit the bill. But it wasn’t until last spring that Lucasfilm gave its consent.
Wheeler then contracted with Deluxe Digital Studios. On a tight schedule to produce the movie for July Fourth festivities in Window Rock, Ariz., five translators hunkered down for a 36-hour weekend, frantically collaborating to not only translate the original material to Navajo, but to do so in such a way that the voice actors’ lines would match up with the characters speaking on the screen.
“We wanted a movie that was not going to be parodied,” Wheeler said. “We needed to make a product that was going to be representative of the seriousness of what we were trying to do.”
Casting was held in early May, and about 170 showed up to audition. The buzz was tangible, Wheeler said. Yazzie, who is originally from Rock Point, Ariz., but now lives in Layton, hadn’t thought it was worth the trip given what seemed like long odds.
“The days leading up to the audition, a lot of my friends and family were like, ‘Are you going to audition for this or what?’” she said. They swayed her, and her sisters helped foot the bill for her travel. But while Yazzie speaks, writes and reads Navajo fluently, she wasn’t actually a “Star Wars” fan — she had never even seen the originals. So she rewatched “A New Hope” over and over for four days before the audition.
When she got to Window Rock, Yazzie saw a girl in a white Navajo dress with hair done up like Princess Leia and thought, “I have no chance. But I was like, OK, if I do this, then at least I can say I auditioned for Princess Leia. I can be a part of history.”
She did more than just audition, she landed the part, and she felt immense pride when roughly 1,500 showed up for the premiere in the Window Rock rodeo grounds (where organizers hastily set up a 25-foot-by-60-foot screen on the side of a stock trailer after earlier festivities — as rugged a sci-fi premiere, perhaps, as there has ever been).
Two of Yazzie’s sons were there, as were her niece and her parents. She was awed watching the kids try to piece together the meaning of the language based on their previous understanding of the plot, while her parents were enjoying a movie in a way that they had never had the chance to do before.
“They didn’t have to worry about whether or not they understood what was going on,” she said.
Wheeler estimates that the project cost about $75,000, with 90 percent of the funding coming from within the Navajo Nation — “something that I feel very proud about.” There are about 300,000 enrolled members of the Navajo Nation, and Wheeler said estimates range from between 40 percent and 60 percent who speak Navajo.
Wheeler said the response has boiled down to two questions, for which he doesn’t yet have answers but about which he is “optimistic”: “When will the DVD come out and when are we going to work on another movie?”