When Terry Teller was a boy, he would bring Luke Skywalker to life in a wash near the Navajo Nation’s Lukachukai Mountains in northern Arizona. Sticks turned into imaginary light sabers as he acted out scenes from the 1977 classic “Star Wars.” Teller never expected that, two decades later, he would give Navajo voice to the role of Skywalker on the silver screen.
Teller, 34, is one of seven Navajos whose bizaad — their language — was dubbed into the original George Lucas film, which is now known as “Episode IV: A New Hope.” “When you are young, it’s cool to be a Jedi, and you don’t think about being the real one,” Teller said. “But to be really a part of the movie, that’s real exciting.” Organizers hope the project will bring attention to the language and inspire tribal youth to learn it.
The first public showing of the Navajo-dubbed film is scheduled for 9p.m. Wednesday in Window Rock during the Navajo Nation’s Fourth of July celebration.
“What I can’t believe is how big this project has grown,” said Manuelito Wheeler, Navajo Nation Museum director, who came up with the idea.
“I hope that it has the impact that I wanted it to have.
“When the project will be final for me is when I watch shima sani (maternal grandmother) watch this movie (and) smile with understanding because she does not speak English.”
The project took years to complete — from gaining permission from Lucasfilm Ltd. to agonizing over the script to traveling to Window Rock to find authentic voices to play the roles of some of the most revered characters in modern movie history: Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Obi-Wan Kenobi.
However, the project isn’t without controversy within the tribe. It has sparked debate about which Navajo words best fit the lines in the movie — there’s no direct translation for “May the force be with you” in the Navajo language — or if the movie carries any parallels to traditional Navajo philosophy.
Wheeler came up with the idea to translate the movie into Navajo in the late 1990s.
Now 43, Wheeler was too young to watch the first “Star Wars” movie when it opened in theaters. However, he became a fan at age 27 when he watched it on video.
“It’s just a good story about a hero who goes up against challenges,” Wheeler said. “In a sense, it’s a reflection on Native people, who faced challenges. … All tribes have stories, which guide them to decisions that relate to people and the environment.”
Wheeler and his family lived in Phoenix in the 1990s, when he worked at the Heard Museum. His wife, Jennifer, taught the Navajo language at Phoenix Union High School’s North High School and Phoenix College.
Wheeler ordered a “Star Wars” script off the Internet in 2000, and his wife translated the story into Navajo.
The idea to dub the film in Navajo languished until the Wheelers moved back to the reservation in 2008, when the Navajo Nation Museum hired him. He felt his idea would be better received coming from a museum director.
Wheeler dug out the script in 2010 and wrote a proposal to Lucasfilm, which endorsed the idea in January 2011. Lucasfilm turned the plan over to Deluxe Digital Studios, which has dubbed the movie into 15 languages, including French, German, Spanish and Japanese.
“I wanted to be involved in this project because I love languages and culture,” said Shana Priesz, Deluxe’s senior director of localization. “Also, I don’t want people to lose their language. ‘Star Wars’ is a classic movie that all generations can enjoy. … I want younger people to be excited to learn their language. I want to have people enjoy the movie in their language. I want people to feel proud.”
The project did not start moving until earlier this year, when funds were secured. The Navajo Nation’s Parks and Recreation Department agreed to pay $75,000 of the $100,000 cost for the dubbing.
Deluxe Digital Studios began with auditions in Burbank, Calif., where about 10 Navajos auditioned in April.
They didn’t hire anybody because their Navajo “was not up to par,” Priesz said.
So the group traveled to Window Rock in May, where they held two days of auditions at the Navajo Nation Museum to find authentic voices for Skywalker, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Han Solo, C-3PO, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Grand Moff Tarkin.
About 115 Navajos showed up. Some dressed as their favorites, complete with Princess Leia-like hair buns and light sabers. Some were young. Some old. They came from Gallup, N.M., Albuquerque, Tucson, Phoenix, Cottonwood and Page. Others came from the reservation communities of Tuba City, Lukachukai, Rough Rock, Chinle and Fort Defiance.
Some struggled with nerves while waiting in the museum lobby. Many wrinkled their foreheads in concentration. Others dabbed sweat off their faces with paper towels.
One of those who auditioned was Marshale Natonabah, 54, who took a break from shearing sheep in the Chuska Mountains near Crystal, N.M.
He jumped into a 1997 Chevrolet pickup truck and drove about 50miles to the museum to give Diné Bizaad — the Navajo language — to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the only character he remembered from watching “Star Wars” on TV.
The audition was “nerve-racking,” he said.
“I thought I may sound funny, the way I speak Navajo may be off … compared to how most people speak Navajo,” Natonabah said. He understood that the accents and inflections he places on certain Navajo words may not be the same as other Navajo speakers.
Navajo is his first language, but he spent two decades as a federal employee in Albuquerque.
“The project is pretty exciting, and I enjoyed it,” he said. “I think the younger Navajos who live on the reservation would enjoy the film because they like animation. ‘Star Wars’ encourages imagination, and so do our oral Navajo stories.”
The Navajo Reservation stretches across 27,425 square miles, mostly in Arizona, with portions of the land in southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico. Navajo Nation membership is about 300,000, and many live and work off the reservation.
No one disputes that the language is dwindling.
More than 169,000 people spoke Navajo in 2010, down from 178,014 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Navajo is an oral Athabaskan language, passed down through generations. The language is nuanced, and a slight inflection on a word can give it a whole new meaning.
For example, “Neeznáá” means the number 10, while “Neezná” means “They died.”
Non-Navajos such as missionaries and linguists developed the written language. The latter developed a Navajo alphabet designed for reading, writing and typing, according to Evangeline Parsons Yazzie, who co-wrote “Diné Bizaad Binahoo’aah: Rediscovering the Navajo Language.”
The majority of Navajos can’t read or write the language, and although museum officials haven’t released the script, it apparently favors those who can both read Navajo and speak it fluently.
During the auditions, three Navajo language curators asked the hopefuls superficial questions in Navajo — about their trip to Window Rock, the weather — to get a sense of how fluent they were.
A young “Star Wars” fan wondered what Navajo language the curators spoke when they peppered him with questions. He was speechless because he did not comprehend what they were saying.
Bo Yazzie, 27, traveled from Cottonwood to audition for Darth Vader’s voice.
“The questions the three people asked in Navajo were weird,” Yazzie said. “The slang was different. I can communicate with my grandfather in Navajo, but it’s not the way he and I speak Navajo.”
Jolyana Begay, the Phoenix Indian Center’s program manager for language and culture, tried out unsuccessfully for Princess Leia.
The 32-year-old parted her long, dark hair into ponytails, rolled them into buns and pinned them to the sides of her head. She read Leia’s conversation with Grand Moff Tarkin following Leia’s capture.
One of the challenges, Begay said, included shortening the Navajo translation to fit the English version on screen.
“The difficulty is the Navajo language is very descriptive, and there are so many different ways to say certain things,” Begay said.
She said she had trouble saying the words quickly enough within the amount of time Princess Leia says the lines in English.
Speaking, reading and writing the language paid off for the seven Navajos chosen for the film. Among them:
Teller, who dressed up as a Jedi for the audition, is the son of pastors at Tsaile Community Church in Tsaile.
Friends encouraged him to audition because of his mastery of the language.
Teller, a self-described science “nerd,” studied the Navajo language in the Bible. His church became an excellent venue to build on the vocabulary and perfect the accent because a good portion of the congregation spoke only Navajo.
By the time Teller attended nearby Diné College, he spoke, sang and corrected instructors about the mechanics of the Navajo language. He earned a Ph.D. in pharmacy and returned to Lukachukai to work at the Tsaile Health Center.
The language is fluid, said Teller, who learned to say “blow your nose” four ways. Navajo regions pronounce words differently, he said.
So, he wasn’t surprised when the “Star Wars” Navajo script had new, poetic Navajo words to describe the solar system. A meteor shower, for example, described stars raining down in fragments.
The project brings diverse Navajo accents, voices and translations from across the reservation, he said.
“‘Star Wars,’ for example, brings together different slang from different parts of the reservation,” Teller said. “We all speak differently. I believe the movie will generate a healthy debate about the language, how it changes, and at least it will open the discussion about how complex and how integrated it is.”
Clarissa Yazzie grew up in Rock Point, a Navajo community in northeastern Arizona, spoke Navajo first and later learned to write it at Rock Point Demonstration School.
Yazzie is not a “Star Wars” fan. Her ex-husband, a devoted follower of the series, piqued her interest.
When Yazzie found out about the auditions, her family and friends thought she would make a perfect Leia because they know her to be feisty, sarcastic and fearless. Before she drove the 500miles to Window Rock from Layton, Utah, she watched “Star Wars” five times to make sure she had Princess Leia’s attitude and voice down pat.
The work to put Navajo emotion into Leia required some thought.
“I wanted to get the emotion into the character, which was difficult because it meant remembering my conversations with my mother to find examples of Navajo sarcasm,” Yazzie said. “My mother’s sarcasm comes out when she puts her hand on her hips and says, in her half-joking and half-harsh Navajo tone, ‘What? Haven’t you done this before?’ I used that tone and attitude for Princess Leia.’’
Marvin Yellowhair, 54, is a self-described “born Darth Vader.”
Yellowhair grew up in Black Mesa in a family that had livestock — and still does today. The lifestyle required discipline under the leadership of a grandfather, a Haskee Naizzin, one who had an authoritative voice and leadership personality.
When he was a boy, Yellowhair imitated his grandfather. He would later attend a reservation high school, where a classroom teacher took him to a movie theater off the reservation in 1977.
They watched “Star Wars.”
Yellowhair learned and refined Navajo reading and writing in college. In addition, he published a personal Navajo dictionary.
When he showed up in Window Rock for the audio auditions, he came unprepared. He glanced at the Navajo script briefly and injected his grandfather’s voice into his version of Darth Vader.
“I’ve always been a Darth Vader,” said Yellowhair, who teaches the Navajo language and coaches sports at Rough Rock High School northwest of Chinle.
Giving his voice to Darth Vader, “also will show my students that the Navajo language can be used in any situation,” he said.
The “Star Wars” saga is similar to Navajo philosophy, said Wheeler, the Navajo Nation Museum director.
“The elements in ‘Star Wars’ parallel traditional Navajo belief,” Wheeler said. “The concept that stars and the universe are ideas that we’ve talked about for time immemorial, and the basic concept is Mother Earth and Father Sky.”
However, others disagree that a Navajo connection to “Star Wars” exists.
Navajo Nation Museum cultural specialist Robert Johnson, 53, fails to see a presence of Navajo philosophy in the movie. Johnson was one of the museum workers who quizzed speakers during the audition.
“It doesn’t really” jibe, Johnson said. “The only reason why the project is OK to me is because the movie will be dubbed into Navajo. To say that the ‘Star Wars’ story crosses with Navajo, I can’t say that it does. Then again, I have not really sat down to study the movie.”
The Navajos believe they moved up from the pit of the earth through four worlds, a journey filled with conflict.
Part of the classic Navajo religion stresses that an individual must maintain balance in one’s life journey, which adheres to the Navajo concept of Hohzhoh, “beauty, stability.” The faith also encourages positive thoughts.
Navajo elders believe the spoken word is powerful, and bad words are forbidden. They believe bad thoughts and words turn into reality and inflict physical and emotional pain among families.
Some Navajos speculate that portions of the philosophy can be seen in the “Star Wars” saga. Obi-Wan Kenobi, who speaks of the Jedi way of life, encourages young Skywalker to believe in himself with the help of the forces in the universe. That idea comes close to the Navajo way of thinking, some Navajos say.
Navajo elders advise: Bidziilgo’ ni’tsinkees, “Guard yourself with strong thoughts,” or Nin tse’kees yeego’ bidziil doo, “May your thoughts be strong.”
The boiled-down English translation: “Use your mind to overcome your obstacles,” a Navajo historian said. Could that translate roughly into “May the force be with you?” Maybe.
Wheeler said he had several versions of the line.
One included the local Navajo Times interpretation. The Times’ cartoonist had the line as, “Adzill Nilholoodo!,” which describes the physical force or “muscle power is with you.”
Even the title is up for debate.
Some say it’s So’ tahdi ana’í, “War among the stars,” while others say it’s So’ tahdi da’ahijigá, “There is physical fighting among the stars,” or So’ tahdi nidaabaa, “A battle in the land of the stars.”
Although everyone may not agree with the final language choices, Wheeler believes the project achieved one of its goals — creating a healthy dialogue about the Navajo language.
Tuba City resident James Bilagody gave his voice to Grand Moff Tarkin. He said it’s important that tribal members translated the classic movie — and he thought they did it accurately.
“What matters is the Navajo Nation did well in the translation of the language, that it’s movie quality,” Bilagody said. “I’m fairly confident that the final project will be something the Navajo people will be proud of.”