Native Village 
Youth and Education News

September 2013

Navajo speech comes to life in ‘Star Wars’
Condensed by Native Village

Arizona: As a boy, Terry Teller would bring Luke Skywalker to life in a wash near the Navajo Nation’s Lukachukai Mountains. Sticks turned into imaginary light sabers as he acted out scenes from the 1977 classic “Star Wars.” Two decades later, Teller became the Navajo voice for Skywalker on the silver screen.

Teller, 34, is among seven Navajos whose bizaad -- language was dubbed into the original George Lucas film,  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.

Episode IV: A New Hope held it's first public showing during the Navajo Nation’s Fourth of July celebrations.

“What I can’t believe is how big this project has grown,” said Manuelito Wheeler, Navajo Nation Museum director. “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 and isn’t without controversy within the tribe. It has sparked debate about which Navajo words best fit the movie's lines.

Others question if the film carries any parallels to traditional Navajo philosophy.

There is no direct translation for “May the force be with you” in the Navajo language.

“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.”

In the late 1990s, Wheeler came up with the idea to translate the movie into Navajo after watching it on video. He ordered a “Star Wars” script off the Internet in 2000, and his wife, a Navajo-language instructor, translated it into Navajo.

Ten years later, after Wheeler and his family moved from Phoenix back to the reservation, he dug out the script  and wrote a proposal to Lucasfilm. Lucasfilm endorsed the idea and turned the plan over to Deluxe Digital Studios, which has dubbed the movie into 15 languages.

“I wanted to be involved in this project because I love languages and culture. 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.” Shana Priesz, Deluxe’s senior director of localization

Funding for Episode IV: A New Hope was finally secured this year. 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 auditions for Navajo language voice-overs in Burbank, Cal. Ten people showed up. None were hired. Their Navajo “was not up to par,” Priesz said. 

The Navajo Reservation stretches across 27,425 square miles, mostly in Arizona, with portions in Utah New Mexico.

Navajo Nation membership is about 300,000. Many live and work off the reservation.

More than 169,000 people spoke Navajo in 2010, down from 178,014 in 2000

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.

So the group traveled to Window Rock in May for 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 were young. Some old. Some dressed as their favorite Star Wars character.  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.

“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.” Marshale Natonabah

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 who came to audition was Marshale Natonabah, whose first language is Navajo. Natonabah, 54, took a break from shearing sheep, jumped into a 1997 Chevy pickup, and drove 50 miles to bring Diné Bizaad (the Navajo language) to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the only character he remembered from watching “Star Wars” on TV.

“Neeznáá” means the number 10, while “Neezná” means “They died.”

Non-Navajos developed a written Navajo language, and linguists helped create a Navajo alphabet designed for reading, writing and typing. Most Navajo can’t read or write the language

The winners

Luke Skywalker


Terry Teller is the son of pastors at Tsaile Community Church in Tsaile. He studied the Navajo language and vocabulary in the Bible, and perfected his accent by talking with his congregation, many of whom spoke only Navajo. By the time Teller attended Diné College, he spoke, sang and corrected instructors about the mechanics of the Navajo language.

The language is fluid, said Teller, who learned to say “blow your nose” four ways. Navajo regions pronounce words differently.

“‘Star Wars,’ ... 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.”

Princess Leia

Clarissa Yazzie grew up in the Navajo community of Rock Point.  She spoke Navajo first, then learned to write it at school.

Clarissa's family and friends thought she would make a perfect Leia because she's feisty, sarcastic and fearless. So she watched Star Wars five times, studied the character, then drove 500 miles to Window Rock from Layton, Utah for auditions.

“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.’’

Darth Vader


Marvin Yellowhair, 54, 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. Later, he learned and refined Navajo reading and writing. In college, he published a personal Navajo dictionary. Today he teaches the Navajo language at Rough Rock High School.

When he showed up for auditions, Yellowhair glanced briefly at the script, then injected his grandfather’s voice into Darth Vader's character.

“I’ve always been a Darth Vader,” said Yellowhair, who first saw the film in 1977. Giving his voice to Darth Vader, “also will show my students that the Navajo language can be used in any situation,” he said.

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