‘Baby Shark’ Navajo auditions help to close generation gap

Window Rock, Ariz. • Seven-year-old Drew Wilson, of Rock Point, Arizona, was clearly nervous as she stood in front of several video cameras and photographers Sunday.

Wilson was the only child among several men, women and elders to audition for a singing role in the Navajo language version of the globally popular “Baby Shark” song produced on You-Tube by PinkFong, which is part of SmartStudy, a South Korean company.

The Baby Shark musical has been translated into 19 languages, including English, Arabic, German and Chinese.

The auditions for the Baby Shark roles of the baby, mother, father, grandmother and grandfather were held at the Navajo Nation Museum and Library, which was also the site for past auditions for the Navajo language versions of the movies “Star Wars,” “Finding Nemo” and “Fistful of Dollars” because of the outreach work of Museum Director Manuelito Wheeler and his staff.

During the "Baby Shark" auditions, Wheeler was the confidence building coach, and two Navajo language instructors provided coaching with the correct Navajo language pronunciations.

By the time Wheeler finished coaching Wilson, she was singing at the top of her voice, moving to the music and smiling.

Wilson, who is a second-grader at the Rock Point Community School, said her class sings along with the "Baby Shark" tune and does little dance movements.

Wilson's mom Katrina Begay, who auditioned for the mommy shark role, said that after the students have breakfast, they go to the gym, where they play music and do some dancing.

"So, they always play 'Baby Shark,'" she said. “So, it's usually a gym full of K through sixth-graders doing the 'Baby Shark.' And if they did that in Navajo (language) that would be so awesome, especially at Rock Point.”

Begay is a proud graduate of Rock Point Community School, where students are required to speak, read and write their Navajo language before they graduate from high school.

"'Baby Shark' is trending and so if we can do this in Navajo, they will sing it in Navajo because it's a fun thing to know," she noted. "I don't know any kid who doesn't sing this song. So, if they can do it in Navajo, that would be so awesome." Begay said she decided to audition for the mommy shark after one of her friends shared a Facebook post about the auditions.

She said she auditioned for the Dory role in "Finding Nemo," which was fun.

“And I wanted to get my daughter involved so she can see what it’s like to be involved in something bigger than just Rock Point and the whole Navajo Nation,” she said. “I want my daughter to be involved in learning her language in a fun way.”

(Alma E. Hernandez | Gallup Independent via AP) Katrina Begay practicing lines with her daughter Drew Wilson at "Baby Shark" auditions at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz., on Dec. 8, 2019. Begay and her daughter traveled from Rock Point, Ariz., to audition for the roles of Mama Shark and Baby Shark.

Making learning fun

Begay said her daughter's Navajo language grades aren't always the best and she believes that's because her daughter isn't immersed in the Navajo language, like she was when she was a child.

She said she speaks Navajo to her daughter, but her husband, who is Creek from Oklahoma, speaks English.

"So, it's a little harder for her to learn in school," Begay explained. "This Navajo language 'Baby Shark' makes it fun. And she actually learned the Navajo phrases for 'Baby Shark' by singing them." As she looked around the room of men, women and elders, she smiled and said the auditions for 'Baby Shark' were already bringing together grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers and their children.

"It's a good way to push our kids to learn their language because some of them are too embarrassed because they get ridiculed when they mispronounce Navajo words," Begay said. “So this is fun way to bring everybody together and have fun.”

Alessandra Uentillie, of Valley Store, Arizona, which is near Chinle, agreed with Begay.

"I like the relevancy; it's closing generation gaps," Uentillie said. "I saw an elderly man practicing for the grandpa shark. He knows how to speak and write Navajo, but I think the 'Baby Shark' song was new to him. He kept playing it over and over. It was neat to see an elderly take interest in a younger generation song, like a current modern generation song.

"I feel like this project is going to close a lot of gaps because we can't keep thinking our youth are going to be interested in what we're interested in as adults and elders," she said. "We got to look at what they're interested in and probably reach them with our language and culture in that manner." Uentillie said she decided to audition after her husband Theo Towne, who was called to audition for daddy shark, encouraged her to audition. He's got parts in the Navajo version of "Finding Nemo" and "Fistful of Dollars." "So we encourage each other to do stuff like this," Uentillie said.

She said they encourage their children to get involved in community activities, so they need to walk their talk by being role models.

Uentillie said her two sons, who are 2 and 5 years old, are constantly playing "Baby Shark." She noted that her husband is the fluent Navajo speaker and her strength in learning Navajo is signing in Navajo, mostly Navajo song and dance songs.

Larry Tsosie, who drove from the White Mountain Apache reservation with his wife Sue Tsosie and son Jace, 3, to audition for daddy shark, said he felt good about his audition.

"It feels good to be in that child mode," Larry Tsosie, who is Navajo, said with a huge smile. "That child in me came out. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it. It was great." He noted that Wheeler helped him by telling him to imagine himself singing to his son.

Sue Tsosie said her husband has a deep baritone singing voice and he got several roles in “Finding Nemo.”