Manuelito Wheeler isn’t sure exactly why Navajo elders admire Western films.
It could be that decades ago, many of them were treated to the films in boarding schools off the reservation decades ago. Or, like his father, they told stories of growing up gathered around a television to watch gunslingers in a battle against good and evil on familiar-looking landscapes.
Whatever the reason, Navajo elders have been asking Wheeler to dub a Western in the Navajo language ever since Star Wars IV: A New Hope was translated into Navajo and released in 2013.
The result? “Beeso Dah Yiniljaa” or A Fistful of Dollars, an iconic Western starring Clint Eastwood who plays a stranger – known as The Man With No Name – entering a Mexican village in the throes a power struggle between families.
Unlike many other Westerns produced in the US, it has no Native Americans in it. That appealed to Wheeler, the director of the Navajo Nation Museum.
“Usually in Westerns, there are inaccurate, if not offensive, depictions of Native people, so this one had no Natives, period,” Wheeler said. “That just eliminated that aspect for me.”
A premiere for the crew and all-Navajo cast of voice actors is scheduled on 16 November at the movie theater in Window Rock, Arizona, the first showing since the venue shut down in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Limited seats are available to members of the public who are vaccinated against Covid-19 and consent to a rapid test on site.
It will be screened for free later this month at other places on or near the Navajo Nation, which extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
Other popular films dubbed in Indigenous languages include Bambi in Arapaho, Frozen 2 in Sami and Moana in Maori. The cartoon series The Berenstain Bears was translated into the Dakota and Lakota languages.
At least 20 Indigenous languages are spoken in the films being showcased by the National Museum of the American Indian in November during Native American Heritage Month, said program manager Cindy Benitez. Indigenous people are increasingly producing and directing their own stories, she said, including some entirely in Indigenous languages.
“We have films from all gamuts, from all places”, she said. “It really gives me hope that these filmmakers are using that as a tool for language revitalization.”
A Fistful of Dollars is the third major film dubbed in Navajo, an effort financed by the tribe to preserve the language. Elbert Jumbo voiced Bruce the shark and another fish in the Navajo version of Finding Nemo, released in 2016.
Jumbo, who retired from the US Army and lives in Many Farms, voices Ramon in the Western film. The character calls the shots, terrorizes the town and believes he’s untouchable. Jumbo said he nailed the over-the-top super villainous laugh that is characteristic of spaghetti Westerns.
Jumbo speaks, writes and reads Navajo, a result of growing up in a home where that was the only option.
“People feel a little more pride in knowing that we’ve come a long way with our language,” said Jumbo, 47. “It’s sad to say but some of it we’re losing to the younger generation. But at the same time, I think movies like this inspire them to learn, even if it’s just a little word here and there.”
The movie was supposed to release last year, but was delayed due to the pandemic.
The Navajo Nation Museum teamed up with the New York-based Kino Lorber film distribution company and the Indigenous-owned Native Stars Studios in Gallup, New Mexico, for the film.
“I can’t wait for my uncle to see this, for my dad to see this,” Wheeler said. “The other feeling is I wish that those who have gone, would be here to see this.”