On Seeing Navajo Star Wars

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope is my favourite movie and probably the one I’m most familiar with. I’ve seen it hundreds of times since I was a young boy. At this very moment, I have three different versions of the film in my disc library (the 2011 Blu-ray, the 2004 DVD, and a copy of the original 1977 theatrical version on a bonus disc from the 2006 reissue of the DVD), and there’s still a stack of well-used VHS tapes at my parents’ house.

The many versions of Star Wars means, though, that despite my deep and abiding familiarity with the film, I’ve seen it differently at various points throughout my life. The restorations and remasterings, the numerous modifications to the visual effects, the minor alterations to the dialogue and events have all caused me to see many slightly different Episode IVs over the years. However, no alteration has been as defamiliarizing as seeing Star Wars dubbed into Navajo.

I’m aware that Star Wars is available in languages other than English. I also recognize that the primary purpose of the Navajo version is to increase interest in the Navajo language and foster its preservation in a world in which indigenous languages are dying out. This essay, however, is concerned with my personal experience of seeing Star Wars in Navajo as an Anglophone Canadian of European ancestry. Consequently, this piece is more of a record of the many thoughts and impressions the viewing inspired than a unified argument about the film.

I was fortunate to catch the free screening of Navajo Star Wars at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on National Aboriginal Day here in Canada. The unique viewing encouraged me to see certain aspects of Star Wars differently, while it emphasized other dimensions I already recognized to some extent. For me, seeing Star Wars in Navajo foregrounded the themes of colonialism, religion, and technology. At the same time, my experience of yet another version of Star Wars underlined the saga’s mythic dimension.

Star Wars

Star Wars

I. The Empire

Governor Tarkin: The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I have just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away forever.

General Tagge: But that's impossible! How will the Emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?

Governor Tarkin:The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.

First of all, seeing Star Wars in the language of an indigenous people on National Aboriginal Day set the events of the film against the backdrop of the history of European colonialism in North America and its legacy today. Unlike a lot of science fiction and space fantasy, in the original trilogy the main enemy is not an alien race or a strange monster (although there are bad aliens and dangerous monsters) but the evil Galactic Empire. The good guys are rebels resisting Imperial domination. The Empire exerts its rule undemocratically through force and fear, most prominently in the form of the Death Star, which, as the meeting of Imperial commanders reveals, is just as much a means of control as it is a weapon for combat.

Although two of the central heroes are men and all three are white, the use of Navajo and its associations with race called attention to how the Imperials are all white men. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi extend the contrast, adding more female and more alien characters to the Rebel Alliance mix.

The prequel trilogy positively delights in the diversity of the Republic. Although Attack of the Clones helps explain the uniformity of the Imperial soldiers diegetically—they are clones—this development in the storyline does not erase the theme that associates the Empire with enforced uniformity and faceless sameness. Imperial prejudice and hatred towards alien species is an important theme developed in many works of the Expanded Universe.

It would be very provocative to see a YouTube edit in which the Imperials speak English and everyone else speaks Navajo.

Star Wars Lightsaber

Star Wars Lightsaber

II. Spaceships and Warrior Monks: Technology versus Religion

Han Solo: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

Special guest Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona, explained after the screening that the Navajo have a concept very similar to the Force, and they used the word for that concept in the dub.

As far as I can recall, A New Hope is the only episode to use the word “religion” to describe the Jedi, the Sith, and the Force. In spite of this, the theme of religion and spirituality being in conflict with technological reliance and scepticism is developed throughout the original trilogy, and to a lesser extent in the prequels.

Interestingly, the religion-versus-technology tension is not drawn down Rebel/Imperial lines. Although the Rebels mouth the phrase, “May the Force be with you,” everyone is alarmed when Luke chooses to rely on the Force and not his targeting computer during his trench run. His triumphant destruction of the Death Star is an endorsement of the power of the Force over technological calculation and firepower. Likewise, while Imperial trust and pride in technology are exploded with the Death Star, Darth Vader’s “sad devotion to that ancient religion,” mocked by a foolish Imperial commander, is confirmed by his prowess in battle and lone survival.

In A New Hope, the Force seems to be about harmony. The Force binds things together in a balance of individual instinct and natural unity. Technology in the film is either unnaturally symmetrical and oppressively uniform (and used to enforce uniformity), or, in the case of Han Solo’s, a highly-individualized patchwork. His scepticism and selfish mentality is coupled with an inordinate affection for, and pride in, his own technological handiwork (e.g. the Millennium Falcon’s “special modifications”). His handiwork becomes only increasingly unreliable in The Empire Strikes Back.

Star Wars Sandtroopers

Star Wars Sandtroopers

III. Canon, Multiplicity, Myth, Legend

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . . .

STAR WARS . . . Episode IV . . . A NEW HOPE

I’ve always been a defender of the prequels and over the years I’ve been increasingly scornful of the “non-canonical” Expanded Universe. I’ve often defended the prequels as mighty expressions of authorial vision.

I think I may need to reassess Lucas’s relation to Star Wars. On the one hand, it will always be useful at times to think about the first six episodes of the saga as the works of a single author, George Lucas. But on the other hand, the incredible size, scope, and diversity of the Expanded Universe, as well as the newly expanding film franchise under the ownership of Disney, means that Star Wars cannot be limited to the authorship of George Lucas.

Furthermore, try as I might, the canon of the Star Wars saga cannot be easily and indisputably locked down, except perhaps by saying that Lucas’s final versions of the first six episodes are the canon. But even though a part of me would enjoy that simplicity, I still want to invite the idea that, for example, Han shot first, even if it conflicts with Lucas’s vision late in life.

While the many versions and revisions, as well as the seemingly endless array of reiterations and extensions, may spell continual conflict over the “real” Star Wars, and while various stories will have always more value and significance than others, the multiplicity of Star Wars actually enhances the saga’s mythic quality, and enriches its meaning. Embracing the multiple and competing evaluations also causes the saga to achieve a greater significance than one man’s intentions. It allows Star Wars to hold wider and greater meaning in our culture.

The idea of George Lucas’s Star Wars will always be necessary and valuable to some extent, but it might be more useful to start thinking of Star Wars as being like the stories of King Arthur or Batman. I have to caution, though, that my diminishment of Lucas’s ownership is adamantly not a fanboy endorsement of some unattainable “authentic” Star Wars. 1977 is no more Star Wars than 1997, and vice versa. Let’s continue debating the value of different versions—such as the recent and fascinating Navajo dub—but let’s also forget the idea that we will ever determine what’s “really” and “only” Star Wars.

My Blu-rays are not the definitive Star Wars. And I’m not waiting for some definitive release of the so-called “originals.” I want a critical edition, offering each version, recording not effacing each alteration and revision. And I recognize that my ideal critical edition will likely need to be revised and enlarged over the years.