Navajo Nation Museum director dubs films into Native language

Manuelito Wheeler worked at the Heard Museum for 10 years before taking the position of director at the Navajo Nation Museum. (Nathan Thrash/DD)

Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum, said “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” provided new hope for the Navajo language at the Heard Museum on Thursday night.

Wheeler discussed his project of dubbing the film into the Navajo language and described the current state of the Navajo culture. In addition to “Star Wars,” a Navajo-dubbed version of Disney’s “Finding Nemo” will be coming out in April, Wheeler said.

The prevailing theme of the night was not limited to the dubbing of these blockbuster hits.

Wheeler began the night by discussing his background. He said his upbringing on the Navajo Nation reservation in Window Rock and growing up in Navajo culture made preserving the traditions and language important to him.

That’s what led Wheeler to commit to dubbing “Star Wars” and “Finding Nemo.”

“With these projects that we’re doing, we’re creating a psychological environment,” Wheeler said. “These projects are creating environments where we’re bonding and becoming stronger as Indian people, and we start to have a sense of the future.”

Wheeler compared his projects to the Navajo tradition of basket-weaving. While lamenting the fact that the tradition had gone all but extinct, Wheeler said that his work with the museum and the “Finding Nemo” and “Star Wars” projects are modern equivalents of those time-honored customs.

“We don’t realize it, but things that are happening right now in the Navajo Nation and in Phoenix are creating new traditions,” Wheeler said. “They will evolve into ways that ensure our cultural identity survives.”

Wheeler said one reason why these kinds of projects are important is because at least a few Native languages are lost every year. He said there are several Native languages where the number of speakers can be counted on one hand or have only one speaker left.

The selling of the “Star Wars” project was risky, Wheeler said. It took several years before he was able to convince Lucasfilm Ltd. to take up the project. But even after that, it took several years before Wheeler was able to convince the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department to fund the project.

Translating the “Star Wars” script into Navajo took a team of five an entire weekend.

“They came in on a Friday and had all the scripts in front of them, and they started working and we just kept feeding them pizzas,” Wheeler said. “The team of five translated ‘Star Wars’ in 36 hours.”

Wheeler took the crowd through the process of having Navajo speakers audition for the various roles in the film.

Some voice actors arrived in costume as Jedi. The role that drew the largest number of hopefuls was Princess Leia, with over 60 women trying out for the part, which Wheeler attributed to the matriarchal culture of the Navajo Nation.

The finished product premiered in April 2013, drawing a crowd of over 1,500 people to Gallup, New Mexico. Wheeler was skeptical about the idea of making DVDs of the films. He eventually agreed to have 2,000 DVDs made, and they sold out at the Gallup Walmart in less than three days.

Work just ended on the dubbing of “Finding Nemo,” Wheeler said. He said it was inspiring to see how many kids not only spoke but also were able to read Navajo. Wheeler said the vast majority of Navajo speakers are illiterate with the Navajo language.

“As someone who doesn’t consider themselves fluent, seeing these movies makes you realize that you do know Navajo,” Wheeler said.

Contact the reporter at Daniel.Perle@asu.edu.