Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Navajo translation of ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ aims to preserve and evolve the language

"A Fistful of Dollars" was Clint Eastwood's first starring role. It made him a star and was the first in a loose trilogy directed by Sergio Leone. An effort to translate the film into Navajo aims to capitalize on that legacy and help preserve and grow the language.

The iconic 1964 film “A Fistful of Dollars” made Clint Eastwood a star and popularized European-made films known as spaghetti westerns. But now the movie has taken on a new life as one of a handful translated into the Navajo language. (See the trailer here.)

“A Fistful of Dollars” is the third installment of a popular project spearheaded by the Navajo Nation Museum that began with “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” in 2013. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with museum Director Manuelito Wheeler about his mission to help bolster the Diné language.

Fistful of Dollars Navajo
Manuelito Wheeler
Translator and dialogue supervisor Joe Kee Jr. (left) and engineer Hawk Segura work on the dubbing process for "A Fistful of Dollars" at Native Stars Studios in Gallup, N.M.

Ryan Heinsius: How might this translation serve to preserve the Navajo language?

Manuelito Wheeler: I think first and foremost it creates an atmosphere where people are able to talk about language, and talk about it without fear of criticism, without those type of boundaries that tend to exist.

When we do projects like this it really helps non-fluent speakers connect by when they’re watching the movie you feel like, wow, I understand what they’re saying. I’m following the conversation. So, it’s just kind of a conscious renewal of being able to understand Navajo. It creates just this space for people to get around and have fun with it, have fun with our language.

RH: As I recall when you translated A New Hope, there were a lot of words that didn’t have a Navajo equivalent. Did you run into those issues with this film?

MW: When we did “A Fistful of Dollars,” it’s an environment that’s already familiar linguistically to Navajo people. It’s a western, it happens in the desert. So, the language already lent itself more easily than, say, to “Star Wars” where there were words that were invented.

But you know, since you bring that up I also just want to remind listeners that words were also invented in English for “Star Wars.” So, it’s the same. So, it’s not like this, like, hey, because it’s Navajo we have to invent a new word. It’s like it happened in English as well for “Star Wars.” It happens in all languages, and that’s good. It’s a sign of a growing language.

RH: Classic westerns famously didn’t portray Indigenous people in the most positive light, to say the least. Is there a sense that drawing the genre closer by translating one, “A Fistful of Dollars,” into Navajo kind of diffuses that history of misrepresentation?

MW: Yeah, yes. Number one, there’s no Natives in “A Fistful of Dollars.” That was one of the reasons for choosing this movie. First and foremost, it’s a Clint Eastwood western. There’s just such an immense amount of coolness, for lack of a better word, that comes with that western. The loner, the lone hero type of character is in there and I think that’s just appealing, the underdog is appealing to people.

As you said, going closer to a genre that has really portrayed Natives in an offensive way, in a subjugated way, who are always portrayed in a way that was not accurate to history, both in cultural regalia all the way to just the psychological aspects of the noble savage just being perpetuated.

RH: As you mentioned this project of course began several years ago with the original “Star Wars: A New Hope.” What impact do you think it had culturally and linguistically?

MW: It included Navajos and Natives in the dialogue of the world. It seems like Native people are invisible in America. And when we’re included in such a phenomenally ingrained popular-culture items or topics such as “Star Wars” it’s like we got invited to that conversation. It’s just such a huge thing and Native people really take pride in their association with “Star Wars.”

Any project that utilizes Navajo, it’s adding to that energy in some form or fashion to keep our language alive.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.