FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Manuelito Wheeler isn’t sure exactly why Navajo elders admire Western films.
One possibility is that they were all treated to these films decades ago at reservation boarding schools. Like his father, they could also have shared stories about how their family gathered around a TV as children to see gunslingers fighting evil and good on familiar terrains.
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.
This is the end result. “Béeso Dah Yiníłjaa’” 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 among a power struggle between families. This 1964 film is part of a series of spaghetti westerns that were directed and produced by Italians.
It is unlike other Westerns made in America. Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum, was attracted to this fact.
“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 Nov. 16 at the movie theater in Window Rock, Arizona — the first showing since the venue shut down in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Only a few seats will be available for those who have been vaccinated and are willing to take a test at the venue.
Later in the month, it will also be screened at no cost near other Navajo Nation locations.
Other popular films dubbed in Indigenous languages include “Bambi” in Arapaho, “Frozen 2” in Sámi, and “Moana” in Maori. The cartoon series “The Berenstain Bears” was translated into the Dakota and Lakota languages.
Cindy Benitez, the program manager for Native American Heritage Month said that at least twenty Indigenous languages have been used in the films being shown by the National Museum of the American Indian. She said that Indigenous people are increasingly producing their own stories and even directing them in Indigenous languages.
“Native people in general have been so underrepresented that to have something like film here in 2021 not have their voices heard is an injustice,” she said.
“A Fistful of Dollars” is the third major film dubbed in Navajo, part of an effort 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 is a retired soldier from the U.S. Army, lives in Many Farms and plays Ramon in this Western movie. The character calls the shots, terrorizes the town and believes he’s untouchable. Jumbo claimed he had perfected the super-villainous, over-the-top laugh of spaghetti Westerns.
Jumbo is fluent in Navajo and can write, read, and speak it. This comes from growing up in a family that only allowed this language.
“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 coronavirus delayed its release last year.
Film distribution companies Kino Lorber in New York and Native Stars Studios Gallup (New Mexico) partnered with the Navajo Nation Museum for this 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.”