The following exclusive excerpt from How Star Wars Conquered the Universe (Basic Books, 2014), is the story of the first movie ever translated into the Navajo language — and the impossible quest to find someone who knows nothing about the Star Wars franchise.
George James Sr. was eighty-eight years old when I met him in July 2013, but in the crimson of a setting desert sun he seemed almost timeless. He wore a white Stetson and had leathery skin, a thin build, and deep-set, coal black eyes; he stooped a little from the shrapnel that has been in his back since 1945. James is Tohtsohnnii, part of the Big Water Clan of the Navajo people, and was born where he still lives, in the mountains near Tsaile, Arizona.
When he was seventeen, James was drafted and became that rarest of World War II veterans: a Code Talker. He was one of five Code Talkers who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima and transmitted more than eight hundred vital messages back and forth between the island and the offshore command post in their native language. Their code was virtually unbreakable because there were then fewer than thirty nonnative speakers of Navajo in the entire world.
For an encore, the 165-pound James helped save an unconscious fellow private’s life by carrying his 200-pound frame across the black sands of Iwo and into a foxhole. His calmness under fire helped determine the course of the horrific battle, and arguably the war. “Were it not for the Navajo,” said a major in George’s division, “the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
James’ wartime story was enough to make my jaw hit the floor when I met him. But there was something else about him that was almost as incredible. George James was the first person I’d met, in a year of searching, who seemed to genuinely not know the first thing about the movie we were about to watch: something called Star Wars.
“When I heard the title, I thought, ‘The stars are at war?’” James said, and shrugged. “I don’t go to the movies.”
That’s understandable. There haven’t been any movie theaters here in Window Rock, Arizona, the sun-bleached capital of the Navajo nation, since the last one closed in 2005. Window Rock is a one-stoplight town with a McDonald’s, a dollar store, a couple of hotels, the eponymous natural stone arch, and a statue honoring the Code Talkers. There are plenty of screens here, but they’re all personal: teens thumb through smartphones in parking lots; there are iPads and TVs and Wi-Fi in Window Rock just as in any twenty-first-century western town. But there’s no large public screen where the people — they’re called Diné (pronounced “dee-nay”), Navajo, or just the People — can get together and share a projected dream.
But for one night in 2013, that changed. On July 3, the first movie ever dubbed into a Native American tongue was screened at the rodeo grounds on a giant screen bolted to the side of a ten-wheeler truck. Just outside of town, on Highway 49, sat the only poster advertising this historic event, on a wilderness billboard that for a time became the hottest roadside attraction on the Arizona–New Mexico border. “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope translated into the Navajo language,” it read, alongside a 1977 poster for the movie.
I must have seen that Star Wars poster a million times, but on this highway from Gallup, out of my element and surrounded by brush-covered mesas, I could almost make myself see it through fresh eyes. The kid in white robes appears to be holding some sort of flashlight to the sky; a young woman in strange hair buns holds a gun and poses by his side. Behind them looms a giant gas-mask face with dead eyes and a Samurai helmet. What a strange dream this movie must be.
Just inside town is the Navajo Nation Museum, which spent the past three years persuading Lucasfilm to collaborate on this adaptation of Star Wars. I had to wonder why they persisted so long instead of choosing another translation project — and then I walked into the office of the museum director, Manuelito Wheeler, and saw a shelf full of Boba Fett figurines taking pride of place.
Manny, as he is known, is a big bear of a guy with a stoic expression and silver flecks in his black ponytail hair. A more relaxed and unpretentious museum director you could never hope to meet. He called me “dude” from our first phone call. He told me he’d loved the original trilogy ever since he caught it on VHS in his late twenties. He can more than hold his own in the traditional geek bonding ritual of quoting Star Wars lines. (When I was running late for a subsequent meeting with him, we texted each other Death Star trench-run dialogue: “Stay on target.” “I can’t maneuver!” “Stay on target.”)
Wheeler could wax lyrical about the purpose of the screening, which the museum had conceived of as a way to nurture and preserve the Navajo language, but he also understood that in order for that campaign to be most effective, these matters needed to be approached the same way that Star Wars itself begs to be approached: with exuberance and lightness.
Not that the need to preserve the Navajo language is not dire. The people’s mother tongue, also known as Diné, is dying. Fewer than half of the three hundred thousand People of the Nation can speak it at all; fewer than one hundred thousand are fluent. Fewer than one in ten can read Diné. Back in George James’ day, kids were taught English in reservation schools and spoke Diné at home. These days, Diné is taught in schools, but kids of the 21st century don’t care to learn it. Why bother, when English fills their smartphones, tablets, and TVs?
“We’re know-it-alls now,” Wheeler sighed. “We need to reinvent ourselves.”
What the next generation of Diné needed, he figured, was exactly what George Lucas felt the youth of the 1970s needed: adventure, thrills, good vs. bad, a fairy tale utterly divorced in space and time from the here-and-now, yet also grounded in familiar themes and myths. The story Lucas labored over for years was in many senses a product of its time and the eras that had preceded it, but the dream he captured on celluloid turned out to be utterly malleable and exportable. Star Wars might just have the power to make Diné cool again.
But isn’t this just a form of American cultural imperialism, in which Native people are surrendering to the forces of Hollywood? Wheeler has two words for that notion: “C’mon, dude.” Star Wars is not Hollywood. It is the brainchild of a staunchly independent, Hollywood-hating filmmaker in Marin County who recruited a bunch of young countercultural visual effects guys in a Van Nuys warehouse. The villain of this fairy tale, the Empire, was inspired by the U.S. military in Vietnam; the Ewoks by the Viet Cong; the Emperor by President Nixon.
The fairy tale was charmingly benign enough to mask that fact, and now every culture around the planet, whether embattled or entitled, sees itself in the Rebel Alliance. But the subversive story was there from the moment Lucas sat down to write his first draft. “Star Wars has got a very, very elaborate social, emotional, political context that it rests in,” Lucas said in 2012. “But of course, nobody was aware of that.”
And there’s another reason for the Navajo to embrace Star Wars more than most people. “There’s something spiritual going on here,” Wheeler says. He points out that Joseph Campbell, the giant of global mythology, steeped himself in Navajo culture. That was the subject of Campbell’s first book, Where the Two Came to Their Father (1943), published three years before The Hero with a Thousand Faces. If George Lucas was as influenced by that book as he claims, Manny says, “then Star Wars in Navajo brings it full circle.”
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼I asked Wheeler what the elders — seniors are highly esteemed in Diné culture — would think of the movie. He raised a finger, pulled out his iPhone, and showed me pictures from the cast and crew screening, a more intimate affair to which he had invited a hundred elders. He swiped through pictures of old women in bright azure and red dresses. “It’s a matriarchal culture,” he said, “so when Princess Leia comes on the screen and is this powerful figure, they get it.” Wheeler grinned and pointed to his grandmother: “she really digs Obi-Wan.”
I was thrilled for Wheeler’s grandmother, but my disappointment was palpable. He wasn’t to know, but by inviting the elders to the private screening for the cast, he had all but torpedoed my last real hope of finding someone, anyone, who was a true Star Wars innocent.
The road that had taken me to Window Rock began just before the thirty-fifth birthday of Star Wars in 2012. During a meeting to plan coverage of this milestone at Mashable, it was revealed that one of our own — features writer Christine Erickson — had never seen Star Wars. Our immediate reaction: How had she survived this long? All her life, Christine had heard incomprehensible phrases like “May the Force be with you” and “These are not the droids you’re looking for.” Recalled Christine: “I used to have to just ask people what they were talking about.” Her friends’ reaction always fell on a spectrum “somewhere between scoffing and laughing.”
A familiarity with Star Wars—the 1977 film, if not the entire franchise—is the sine qua non of our modern media-drenched global culture. Shame and scorn is the very least that anyone like Christine can expect. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘We can’t be friends anymore,’” says Natalia Kochan, a graduate student who somehow managed to miss the movie despite attending George Lucas’ alma mater, the University of Southern California.
I began to notice how Star Wars–saturated modern life is; references crop up in the oddest places. I went to a yoga class; the teacher’s short hand for the technique of ujjayi breathing was “just breathe like Darth Vader.” I went to Facebook for a press briefing on the algorithm that governs what stories we see in our news feeds; the executive explained it by showing how Yoda would see different posts from Luke Skywalker compared to the posts Darth Vader and Princess Leia would see on their feeds, because of the different familial relationships. Nobody in the room batted an eyelid. Star Wars had become the one movie series for which it is always perfectly acceptable in modern society to discuss spoilers. (Vader, by the way, is Luke Skywalker’s dad.)
Perhaps this is to be expected at Facebook HQ; its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was enough of a nerd to have had his bar mitzvah Star Wars–themed. But you need only peruse those news feeds to see how frequently Star Wars memes and references permeate social media. At the time of this writing, the original movie has been Liked by 268 million Facebook users.
Star Wars is every bit as important elsewhere in the world as it is in America. In the United Kingdom, there’s a popular TV and radio reality show on which guests are asked to perform some activity that they have to shamefully admit they’ve never done; the title is Never Seen Star Wars. Japan is particularly Star Wars crazy; in Tokyo I met an American who’d moved to the country to be with his boyfriend and was still met, years later, with near-constant mockery by the boyfriend’s traditional Japanese parents — not for his sexual orientation, but because the poor guy had never seen Star Wars. “They keep quoting lines of dialogue at me,” he complained.
We at Mashable couldn’t allow this state of ignorance and shame to continue for one of our own. Plans were made for a live blog. We’d show Christine the original movie. She’d tweet about it; we’d all chime in. The hashtag for the event was “#starwarsvirgin.” Mashable’s community was abuzz. What is Star Wars like through fresh eyes? Would Christine be blown away? Could we capture the elusive spirit of 1977, just for a moment?
Well, not exactly. Christine got wrapped up in the action, to be sure, but — well, so much of it seemed oddly familiar. Every big-budget special effects movie since Star Wars has employed elements from the original film — so many that they are now all recognizable tropes. (For example, the “used universe” — that style of making technology and futuristic costumes look real and dirty and lived-in — was a Star Wars innovation. Practically every science fiction movie since the early 1980s has borrowed it, from Blade Runner and Mad Max on down.)
Nor have Star Wars virgins been sheltered from the world of advertising, which contains a burgeoning number of Star Wars homages. Verizon produced a Halloween ad in 2013 in which entire families dress as Star Wars characters, and the fact goes unmentioned, because doesn’t everyone? Christine’s response on seeing the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO for the first time: “Oh, so that’s where the smartphone comes from.” (Verizon and Google license the name “Droid” from Lucasfilm.) She recognized R2-D2 as a Pepsi cooler that used to live by the bleachers at high school. Darth Vader? Christine knew that costume: it was the one worn by that kid in the 2012 Volkswagen Super Bowl commercial. And yes, she knew Vader was Luke’s dad already.
How far has this benign cultural infection spread? Is there anyone on the planet not carrying a little piece of Star Wars code in their heads? “We do not know how many individual people have seen a Star Wars movie in a theater,” a Lucasfilm spokesperson told me, “but we do know that there have been approximately 1.3 billion admissions over the six films worldwide.” That seems a conservative estimate, and it would be equally conservative to add another billion home video viewers on top of that, judging by the $6 billion the franchise has earned in VHS and DVD sales over the years. This does not even begin to count video store rentals or the vast market of pirated copies.
How many billions more have watched it on TV, or seen an ad, or picked up one tiny piece of the $32 billion worth of Star Wars–licensed merchandise that’s cluttering up the planet? Or, to look at the question the other way around, how many billions, or millions, of people have managed to avoid every last one of these trappings of the Star Wars franchise? And just who are these people?
I was naïve enough to think I could just come to somewhere like Window Rock and catch wide-eyed innocents watching Star Wars for the first time. But that hope was dashed the moment the Albuquerque and Salt Lake City Garrisons of the 501st Legion, a charitably minded bad-guy Star Wars costuming organization, rolled into Window Rock after epic long drives, donned their uniforms, and marched into the rodeo grounds at sunset. They were met with rapturous applause from the packed bleachers — a welcome greater than any I’d seen the 501st get at a Comic-Con or Star Wars Celebration convention.
They marched in alongside the lines of viewers that had been forming for hours in 103-degree heat — a Stormtrooper, a snowtrooper, a biker scout, an Imperial guard, a bounty hunter, and of course, one Dark Lord of the Sith himself. Darth Vader was mobbed, with babies pressed into his arms while excitable mothers took pictures on iPads.
I also noticed a bunch of enterprising kids selling lightsabers. They were wearing Stormtrooper T-shirts with the legend “These aren’t the Diné you’re looking for.” I asked Wheeler if the T-shirts were his doing, but he shrugged. He only made the sparkly “Navajo Star Wars” tops for the crew. He wandered off to have his picture taken with Boba Fett.
Help me, Elders, I thought. You’re my only hope.
And then, as the mesas turned from sunset crimson to twilight indigo and a lightning storm started to crackle in the distance, I met George James Sr., Iwo Jima veteran and Star Wars virgin. It was as if I’d just been introduced to a unicorn leaping over a double rainbow. It had to be too good to be true. I ran through a list of names: Skywalker. Solo. Lucas. Wookiee.
James shook his head at all of them, uncomprehending.
I pointed out the tall guy in the black helmet, who was now dealing with a line of guys pointing and tapping their throats: they wanted to take a picture for a popular Internet meme called Vadering, where you leap in the air and pretend to be force-choked by the Dark Lord. James was perplexed. He genuinely had no idea why the kids from his tribe were doing battle with glowing sticks. When Wheeler got up to introduce the local Navajo voice talent, I had to tell James that no, this is not the Mr. Lucas I had just been talking about.
Then, just before the floodlights dimmed and the 20th Century Fox logo appeared on the screen, something occurred to James. He had seen something on someone’s TV one time, he remembers, a clip from a movie set in space. “I saw wild birds,” he says.
Wild birds in space? What could that be? I think for a second. I hold my arms up and then down at 45 degrees. “Like this?”
James nods; his eyes light up in recognition. “Wild birds.”
Even 88-year old George James Sr., who lives in the mountains and sleeps under sheepskin in a home so remote that it is blockaded by snow for months at a time, was carrying inside his head a piece of Star Wars code — just like you and I and pretty much everyone else on the planet.
The 20th Century Fox fanfare ended, the screen went black, and an electric cheer went up from the crowd. Familiar blue letters appeared on the screen — but this time, for the first time in history, the phrase “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” was rendered in words so alien they had once been banned by the U.S. government, so unfamiliar to the rest of the planet that they were used in World War II cryptography:
Ya’ ahonikaandi . . .
That’s all it took. The crowd roared so loud that I could barely hear the blast of the theme’s opening chord. And Star Wars casually conquered one more Earthling culture.
Lightning forked in the distant hills, but few in the audience seemed to notice or care. The people were cheering like crazy for the roll-up at the start of the movie, every word of it in Diné. Once the dialogue started, there was laughter for the first fifteen minutes straight—not laughter at the film or the performances, but the joyful laugh of a people seeing a movie in their own language for the first time.
To a viewer like me who had grown up watching Star Wars in its original English, a surprising moment of the movie sounded the same. Lucas loved cool sounds and sweeping music and the babble of dialogue more than he cared for dialogue itself. Much of the movie is either free of speech or filled with foreign chatter from aliens and droids. Think of Artoo, of the Jawas: intentionally unintelligible, and we love them for it.
Think of how much time is filled with back and forth blaster fire or the roar of TIE fighters (actually a slowed-down elephant call) or the hum of lightsabers (a broken TV, an old projector). When I first learned that Wheeler’s team of translators had been able to translate the movie from English to Navajo in just thirty-six hours, it had seemed a superhuman feat. In fact, there just isn’t as much English in Star Wars as you might remember.
Some words are untranslatable and remain in English. “Princess Leia” has the exact same title, since Diné contains no concept of royalty. Likewise “Imperial Senate” and “Rebel Alliance.” (The Navajo are so inherently egalitarian that the U.S. government had to force them to set up a governing body it could deal with.) And while the translated dialogue is something of a mélange—the translators speak three different dialects of Diné — this turns out not to matter at all. After all, it doesn’t sound weird to English speakers that half of the actors in the film are British and half American. (Carrie Fisher seems to be playing both accents, but we’ve grown to embrace that too.)
Humor translates differently, of course. The audience seemed to laugh at every word Threepio says. This may be partly because the droid is a drag act: voice actress Geri Hongeva-Camarillo matches his prissy tones perfectly. (Some months later I told Anthony Daniels, the original Threepio, about this gender switch. “The Navajo must be a very confused race,” he said in his best clueless Threepio voice, before winking and reminding me that concept artist Ralph McQuarrie — one of the largely unsung heroes of Star Wars — had originally envisioned Daniels’s character as a waif-thin female robot.)
The biggest laugh of the evening, however, goes to Leia’s line aboard the Death Star: “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I came on board.” There’s a kind of earthiness to the phrase, it seems, that sounds especially hilarious in Navajo, even though Fisher found it one of the hardest lines of the movie to sell: Peter Cushing, who plays Tarkin, “actually smelled of linen and lavender,” she said.
How strange it was to watch Star Wars in a foreign language and still get sucked in. I marveled once again at how flawlessly the story flows. Then came the CGI monsters of Mos Eisley, the shot from Greedo, the incongruous appearance of computerized Jabba, and I winced. I was reminded that, in approving this adaptation, Lucasfilm had required Wheeler to use the latest, highest-quality Special Edition version.
The movie starts to drag a little around the trash compactor scene. The kids in particular seemed distracted, preferring to play with their lightsabers in the aisles; they were caught up in the idea of Star Wars more than Star Wars itself. Families got up and left before the Death Star trench run, 11 p.m. being way past kids’ bedtime. But for the hundreds who remained when the lights came up, the movie created its own little cult of celebrity, just as it has in every other culture it has ever invaded.
There was a cast signing afterwards with the main seven voice actors, and the line to meet them coiled around the stadium. The actors are all amateurs (Darth Vader, for example, was played by local sports coach Marvin Yellowhair) and had been chosen from out of 117 people who had auditioned for the roles; they had been selected for their passion in performing, not for their knowledge of Diné. It worked: their exuberance, plus their familiarity with the subject material, carried the day.
I went looking for reactions from the few elders I saw in the line. This was the closest I was ever going to get to a complete adult newbie experience of Star Wars. Every one of the elders to whom I spoke shared George James’ confusion over the title: Why are the stars at war? The elders also echoed one of the main complaints that had been leveled against Star Wars in 1977: it went too fast. (Modern audiences, of course, see it as too slow; the ethos of Star Wars helped beget the ethos of MTV.)
Some were confused about exactly what each side was fighting for. You can translate “stolen data tapes” into Navajo, but you can’t make it make sense.
Then I learned something spiritual from this group of elders: Manny was right about the Joseph Campbell connection bringing Star Wars full circle. “May the Force be with you,” it turns out, is a nearly literal translation of a Navajo prayer. “The Force,” in their usage, can best be described as a kind of positive, life-filled, extrasensory force field surrounding them. “We call for strength, for protection from negativity,” Thomas Deel, 82, told me via a translator.
Some of the elders glimpsed their belief system in George Lucas’ creation. “Good was trying to conquer evil, and asking for protection in doing so,” summarized Annette Bilgody, an 89-year-old in the traditional dress of a Diné grandmother. She also offered the highest praise of the evening: “I enjoyed it as much as my granddaughter did.”
She wasn’t alone. In the months to come, Wheeler would take his translated version of the movie on the road, screening it for Native American communities at film festivals around the United States. A DVD of Star Wars in Navajo sold out multiple times at Walmarts around the Southwest. Twentieth Century Fox and Lucasfilm got all the money, but that didn’t matter to Manny.
What mattered, he said, was that “the concept is blossoming.” He was hearing one question constantly asked around the Nation: What films should we make in Navajo next? There was even interest in building another movie theater in Window Rock.
As for George James Sr.? He excused himself ten minutes into the movie and never returned. Perhaps, as a veteran of Iwo Jima, he hadn’t wanted to see people blasting each other with weapons modeled on World War II military sidearms. Perhaps, as a Code Talker, he hadn’t relished a story that revolves around an innocent hunted for the crime of carrying a message.
But I like to think that, in leaving early, James managed to preserve some of the mystery he had brought to that evening and that he’s still out there at his home in the mountains, wondering about wild birds and the stars at war.
Chris Taylor is the author of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, the first complete history of the Star Wars franchise and its fandom.