FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — In the new translation of “Star Wars,” Darth Vader is Luke’s bizhe’e.
The classic 1977 film that launched a science fiction empire and revealed the force within a farm boy who battles evil has been dubbed in Japanese, French, Spanish and about a dozen other languages. Add Navajo to the list.
Manuelito Wheeler, the director of the Navajo Nation Museum who reached out to Lucasfilm Ltd. with the idea, has a very good feeling about this. He sees it as entertaining, educational and a way to preserve the Navajo language at a time when fewer tribal members are speaking it.
“That’s the beauty of what we’re doing; we’re teaching Navajo language to anybody who wants to learn the Navajo language,” Wheeler said. “I find that very rewarding and somewhat ironic. We went from a country that wanted to limit our language, to the Navajo language saving our country through Code Talkers, to our language being part of a major motion picture.”
Native languages on the big screen are a rarity. Independent films and documentaries at film festivals have been in the tongue of American Indian tribes. Yet it’s far less common to see it done in mainstream movies and shown in commercial theaters. “Bambi” was dubbed in the Arapaho language, and the cartoon series “The Berenstain Bears” was translated into the Dakota and Lakota languages.
“There’s a little bit of precedent but nothing like ‘Star Wars’ in the Navajo language,” said Michael Smith, director of the American Indian Film Institute and a member of the Sioux Tribe of Montana.
A team of five Navajo speakers spent 36 hours translating the script for “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,” and now they’re looking for fluent Navajo speakers to fill some two dozen roles.
Casting calls are scheduled Monday in Burbank, Calif., and May 3 and 4 — the unofficial “Star Wars” holiday — at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz.