Manuelto Wheeler doesn’t know exactly why the Navajo elders love Wild West movies.
It is possible that many have seen them in boarding schools outside the reserve decades ago. Or, like their father, they would tell stories about gathering around a television who grew up watching militants battle good against evil in familiar landscapes.
Whatever the reason, Navajo elders have been asking Wheeler to call it a West Navajo since “Star Wars IV: A New Hope” was translated into their language in a 2013 version.
The result? “Béeso Dah Yiníłjaa”, or “A Fistful of Dollars”), is a popular Western movie starring Clint Eastwood as an outsider, known as “The Man Without a Name”, who comes to a Mexican town amid a power struggle between families. The 1964 film is the first in the Spaghetti Western trilogy, produced and directed by Italians.
Unlike many other Westerns produced in the United States, it does not have Native Americans. This appealed to Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum.
“Usually in the West there are inaccurate, if not offensive, images of natives, and that person has no natives,” Wheeler said. “That just wiped out that aspect for me.”
The movie and crew of all Navajo vocal members are set to premiere November 16 at Window Rock, Arizona’s theater, the first show since the venue closed in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Limited seats are available to viewers who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and who agree to a rapid on-site test.
It will be shown for free later this month elsewhere in 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 animated series “The Berenstain Bears” has been translated into Dakota and Lakota.
At least 20 indigenous languages are spoken in films that the National Museum of the American Indian shows in November during Native American Heritage Month, program director Cindy Benitez said Thursday. He noted that indigenous peoples are increasingly producing and producing their own stories, including stories of some in indigenous languages.
“We have films of all levels and of all places,” he said. “It really gives me hope that these filmmakers are using that as a tool to revitalize the language.”
“A Fistful of Dollars” is the third major film to be dubbed in Navajo, a tribe-funded effort to preserve the language. Elbert Jumbo voiced Bruce the shark and other fish in the Navajo version of “Finding Nemo,” released in 2016.
Jumbo, who is retired from the US Army and lives on several farms, also voices Ramon in the movie Old West. The character commands and terrorizes the city and believes he is untouchable. Jumbo said he achieved the highly exaggerated, sinister laughter that characterizes Spaghetti Westerns.
Jumbo speaks, writes and reads the Navajo language, as he grew up in a household that was the only option.
“People feel a little more proud to know that we have come such a long way with our language,” said Jumbo, 47. “It is sad to say, but it is a little lost with the younger generation. At the same time, I think films like this inspire them to learn, even if it is just a word here and there.”
The premiere was scheduled to take place last year, but was postponed due to the coronavirus.
The Navajo Nation Museum has partnered with New York-based film distribution company Kino Lorber and India’s Native Stars Studios in Gallup, New Mexico, for the film.
“I can’t wait for my uncle to see this, for my father to see this,” Wheeler said. “There is also hope that those who left were here to see her.”
“Professional problem solver. Subtly charming bacon buff. Gamer. Avid alcohol nerd. Music trailblazer.”