Although they have yet to reach anything close to parity, Native Americans are experiencing an undeniable “moment” in the entertainment industry. FX’s “Reservation Dogs” closed out its first season with universal praise. AMC’s “Dark Winds” gave fictional Navajo cops Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee their finest moment in the spotlight. And Prey, the latest installment in the Predator movie series, finds New Mexico native Amber Midthunder cast as a Cherokee warrior battling the alien menace that once took on Arnold Schwarzenegger. To a lot of people in the Southwest, this comes as little surprise. With its rich history of art and storytelling, Native American culture fits quite comfortably into our country’s pop cultural landscape.
Over in Window Rock, Ariz., the Navajo Nation Museum produces its fair share of traditional exhibits—chronicling the history of The Long Walk of 1864, examining the art of basketry by the Diné of the Four Corners Region. At the same time, however, the museum has been looking at contemporary Native culture as it moves into the 21st century. Back in 2013 the museum spearheaded an effort to dub George Lucas’ myth-heavy sci-fi film Star Wars: A New Hope into Diné Bazaad, the 700-year-old language of the Navajo. With its expert recasting and professionally re-cut soundtrack, the film was a massive success, cementing the iconography of Star Wars for generations of Native movie lovers and artists. That was followed, a few years later, by an equally successful Navajo-language dub of Pixar’s Finding Nemo. (Both are available for viewing on Disney+.)
Now, the Navajo Nation Museum is releasing a Navajo language cut of Sergio Leone’s iconic 1964 spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood. Thanks to New Mexico PBS, the film will have a special premiere on Aug. 16 at Albuquerque’s KiMo Theatre. Providence Pictures will be there that night, filming an episode of the PBS series “Native America.” The episode will focus on efforts to preserve traditional Native languages.
Prior to the big premiere, The Paper. jumped at the chance to speak with Manuelito Wheeler of the Navajo Nation Museum. Wheeler has been the museum’s director for more than 13 years and came up with the wild idea to translate and dub popular films into Diné Bazaad.
How did the museum get involved in this whole project?
My wife is a Navajo language instructor, and she’s taught Navajo at all levels from elementary all the way up to university courses. So, just being in that environment, having those discussions with her almost on a daily basis—it was dinner table talk about how, “I wonder what it would be like to dub a movie in Navajo?” So the ask went to Lucasfilm. For almost 10 years. Then they came back and said they were interested in this project, and it took off from there. And Star Wars led to Finding Nemo, and Finding Nemo led to A Fistful of Dollars.
You spent a lot of time acquiring Star Wars. Was that always the first goal?
Yes, for a lot of reasons. Number one was because it was so popular. It would just reach a very broad audience in terms of age and in terms of different backgrounds of people. It was just such a widely admired film. And that’s true of Navajo people. Navajo people really admired it. Then, for personal reasons: I’m a Star Wars fan. I think there’s parallels with Navajo and Native teachings and the views on how The Force is used.
Over the years, what has the response from Hollywood been? How hard or easy has it been to secure these films?
Hollywood has been very supportive. The entertainment industry is very supportive. But on our end, there’s a lot of work. And there’s a lot of responsibility to maintain the quality of the films we dub into Navajo. And so that’s been a huge undertaking. And I take that responsibility seriously. I always want to make sure that the quality of the movie that we’re dubbing is upheld. We’d really been placed in good hands in the beginning that taught us a lot. And we’re still learning.
Is the number of people who speak Navajo going up or down?
I don’t know about the latest statistic. I don’t know if a statistic has been done recently. But the general consensus is that—let’s say there’s 400,000 Navajo people—half of the Navajo people speak our language, which is fantastic. But one of the dangers is that, of that half that speak Navajo, the majority of them are 40 years or older. So we really need to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak, and really put things in place that are going to ensure our language survives.
What do you see as the goal for these film dubs? Is it education? Is it reaching those younger Native audiences? Is it entertainment? Cultural acceptance?
There’s so many of those points that you mentioned that are part of the goals of the movies. Number one, it’s language preservation awareness. It’s not just language preservation; it’s awareness. It’s bringing to the forefront that we need to realize and understand that if we don’t do anything, if we just continue what we’re doing now—which is not a lot in terms of putting programs or awareness messages in place—that our language is in trouble.
You could have just made a documentary or educational series about this issue. But you chose to bring popular Hollywood movies into the equation. What is the intersection between Native American language, art and culture and broader American pop culture?
There’s so many things. This part I want to—I urge you—to put in the story: There have always been Native filmmakers, and Native filmmakers have put their languages and our languages in their films. It’s just that those films never reached a broader audience. Yet. And history will, hopefully, notice them. But as you mentioned earlier, there seems to be a trend of Native people becoming involved in the entertainment industry. More and more. It started with our own Native filmmakers. Those guys were the trailblazers. And then Star Wars being dubbed in Navajo, that launched us forward. So far in the awareness of the entertainment industry. So why these types of movies compared to what you said, an educational series or a documentary? It’s because, for me, it’s a natural from. It attracts people naturally. It engages people naturally. And it puts people in natural settings to experience the emotions of a motion picture together. Whether that’s emotions of suspense, like in Star Wars. Or the family emotions in Finding Nemo. There’s a part where they think Nemo didn’t make it toward the end of the movie. And there’s this emotional scene of sadness. As a human person, specifically that understands Navajo, it allows them to experience those things. And by them happening like that in a natural setting—in a setting you want to be in, just like anybody else who goes to the movie—that’s making a big impact. That’s making a huge impact in the desire to want to learn Navajo. That’s why I’ve chosen to move forward. It’s proven effective in the sense that people are still attracted to this. People still want to watch these movies. They still ask about the DVDs. Now we’re about to premiere Fistful, and I think if you’re gonna go to the premiere you’re gonna see for yourself how much people really enjoy these movies and experience them in the Navajo language.
So how did you settle on A Fistful of Dollars as the first Western you’re approaching?
We did Star Wars and then we did Finding Nemo. They’re both very family oriented. And Nemo is younger audience-oriented. So one of the things that I started noticing was that there were a lot of elders that were coming to these movies or buying the DVDs. Or their children or grandchildren were wanting to watch them with them. And so it was two things. One, the realization that our elders, they are the primary language-keepers right now. So it was in an effort to do something specifically for them. That they would enjoy. And then number two, it was requested. A lot. I would hear it from people a lot: “You need to do a Western.” Based on those two primary reasons, that’s when we started to ask around at the different studios if they would be interested in letting us dub one of their Westerns. Going to the iconic Westerns it led to Clint Eastwood. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a lot of people wanted us to do. But The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is a long movie. That would have required us to spend more time on it. There’s a lot of dialogue. That drives up the cost of the movie for us to dub it.
What are plans for the future?
We really had strong relations with more than a few major movie studios. I was in discussion with them about other movies, and then COVID came. A Fistful of Dollars was supposed to be released in early 2020. That’s when COVID really shut down the world. This movie has been done since early 2020, but now we’re finally giving it the recognition it deserves and letting people experience it. So I need to knock on some doors again and get that communication going with the studios to say, “Hey, remember that movie we were talking about?” and then go from there.
The premiere of Béeso Dah Yiníłjaa’ (A Fistful of Dollars) takes place at 7pm on Tuesday, Aug. 16 at Albuquerque’s KiMo Theatre (423 Central Ave. NW). Admission is free, but seating must be reserved at tickets.holdmyticket.com/tickets/398215.