For Native Americans, it’s the elders who are the primary language keepers.
Manny Wheeler is aware of this.
As the director of the Navajo Nation Museum, Wheeler has taken steps to help preserve the Navajo language.
One of them is getting movies dubbed into Navajo.
The latest film to get the treatment is the 1964 classic Western, “A Fistful of Dollars.”
There will be a special premiere screening at 7 p.m. Aug. 16, at the KiMo Theatre, 423 Central NW. It will not screen with subtitles.
The event is free to attend. Tickets are required at holdmyticket.com and guests are seated on a first-come, first-served basis.
The event is being put on by Navajo Nation Museum, Providence Pictures and New Mexico PBS.
“A Fistful of Dollars” tells the story of a wandering gunfighter plays two rival families against each other in a town torn apart by greed, pride and revenge.
The effort is to better the awareness of Navajo language preservation to Navajo people and the broader public.
When Wheeler brought the idea to MGM in 2019, they offered their full support to make this project a reality.
Wheeler and the museum had successful ventures translating “Star Wars” and “Finding Nemo.”
He worked with an all-Navajo group of translators and voice actors who capture the heart and the essence of characters including the “Man with No Name,” infamously portrayed in the film by Clint Eastwood.
“We wanted to take a look at what type of film would be effective to dub into Navajo,” Wheeler said. “Just based off movies that I see, my dad and my older uncles, they are always watching Westerns. I knew we wanted to target a Western.”
Wheeler says the film was originally supposed to premiere in 2020, but the pandemic squashed that idea.
Then 2021 rolled around, and it was shown in a limited capacity on the Navajo Nation.
“People were still being cautious about COVID,” he says. “We held off until this year to make a big splash with the film.”
During the event at the KiMo, Dan Golding and his team from the TV series, “Native America” will be there chronicling the journey.
Golding says the production was looking for features and this project stood out.
“We wanted to try and find something that was related to technology and have a contemporary story,” he says. “I remember reading about Manny and the dubbing of ‘Star Wars.’ He was being innovative by telling a story through Native language. We’ve been working together for a few months now.”
Golding is still working on the episode, which will premiere in late 2023.
“I’m right in the middle of the paper edit and I’ve been watching the footage,” Golding says. “There’s so much good material. My problem right now is how can I sort through hours of material that’s going to be 20 minutes on screen.”
Golding says most of the interviews for the series are in Navajo and the editing and translation takes a little more time.
“We did production with Manny and the team for about four days,” he says. “The KiMo event will be the last piece to the puzzle. It’s important for us to capture how wonderful this is for community.”
Wheeler has enjoyed the process of getting another film dubbed in Navajo.
He says the biggest misconception is that there aren’t enough words in Navajo to properly dub it.
“With ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Finding Nemo,’ there was very little difficulty to find words to translate to Navajo,” he says. “I think people in the world think of Native Americans and our language as primitive. The reality is that Native languages are more complex than the English language. With ‘Star Wars,’ we had to translate lightsaber. We have many words that fit that translation. We had to pick the right one.”
Wheeler says the translation of “A Fistful of Dollars” was paid for by funds raised by the Navajo Nation.
This and future projects are about bringing the awareness to Native languages and their future.
“It’s about language preservation awareness,” he says. “It’s key to get Native people understanding that we are in a serious crisis about it. It’s about getting the country aware that we are in this crisis with our language and we need the younger generation to carry the torch. These movies are an effort to change the momentum to change it towards a more active language.”
Wheeler himself is on the journey to learning Navajo fluently.
“My wife is fluent and she tells me I need to be more proactive,” he says. “It’s on my mind more than ever. I’m making the change with myself as well.”