'Star Wars' Is Getting a Navajo Makeover

The classic sci-fi origin story has more in common with Navajo creation myths than you might imagine.

Image: Gordon Tarpley

Auditions begin today for voice actors tasked with imbuing Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and the rest of the original Star Wars ensemble with the Navajo tongue.

That's right. The Hollywood classic, which has been dubbed in about 40 languages--including Arabic and Vietnamese--is finally making its way onto the reservation. Part of the reason it's taken so long is that Lucasfilm, George Lucas' production company (which he recently sold to Disney for $4 billion), had been slow in responding to requests from the Navajo to dub the 1977 film.

Bringing the sci-fi movie into the Navajo fold is a way to encourage young tribe members to learn and carry on the Navajo language. And it's shaping up to be one of the best ideas Manuelito Wheeler has ever had.

"I'm getting feedback internationally from this project," Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum, told Motherboard. The core of Wheeler's job involves persuading young people to engage (or re-engage) with their native culture--not an easy task in the suffering museum industry these days. "I've been in the museum business for 20 years and I've never seen this kind of engagement before. This has definitely struck a chord."

The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American tribe in the U.S. The federal government estimates there are 170,000 people who speak the tribe's language. Even though the language isn't under threat of extinction, Wheeler, who has two young sons, views this time as a potentially pivotal moment for the culture.

"I don't speak Navajo fluently and I grew up with parents who both spoke Navajo, so why didn't I learn it?" Wheeler says. "There are thousands of other people who are in my situation. It makes you think about that disconnect."

For Wheeler, introducing Star Wars to his tribe is a way to explore an existential dilemma he's grappled with since his childhood growing up on the reservation in Window Rock, Arizona. In fact, he views the sci-fi saga as a kind of contemporary reflection of his heritage.

The tale of a humble young farmboy (from Tatooine) who answers a call of duty and winds up traversing the galaxy in search of his destiny actually fits snuggly into the archetypal Navajo creation stories, Wheeler says. Native American mythology helped form the foundation of Joseph Campbell's theories about the universal "hero's journey," which Lucas has cited as an essential blueprint for the Star Wars saga. 

"When you talk about the Force--the energy that binds the galaxy together and relates everything in nature--it sounds like the traditional Navajo teachings to me," Wheeler says. "It reminds me of being around elders to some extent. There's some element of wisdom in that movie that I relate to."

Even translating the script into Navajo, which might seem like an insurmountable feat given the technological marvels and alien encounters in Star Wars, seemed a natural fit, Wheeler says. For example, the concept of autonomous droids is one the Navajo tongue has expressed for generations. 

"There's a Navajo word that means 'machine that thinks for itself' that is way better at describing artificial intelligence than the word robot [or droid]," he says. "Even though, in the past, we never had associations with these machines, our language has that concept covered. In a lot of instances, I think the concepts in Star Wars translate better in Navajo."