Ravonelle Yazzie is not an actor. And prior to getting cast in the small, two-line part she’d never recorded a voice over, been in a studio, or even heard of foley work.
But she is fluent in Navajo.
And that, combined with her willingness to take direction “and just go for it” made her perfect for the part in the Navajo-dubbed version of the iconic spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars which will be shown in some theaters on the Navajo Nation reservation over the next month.
The film, which is called Béeso Dah Yiníłjaa’ in Navajo, is the latest undertaking in a campaign by the Navajo Nation Museum to preserve the Navajo language, which, despite being the most widely spoken indigenous language in the U.S., is in sharp decline.
Manuelito Wheeler, director of the museum, told NPR the movie has been in the works since 2018. It was originally scheduled for a spring 2020 release but the pandemic caused several delays.
“I didn’t really know what the movie was about or who the character was,” Yazzie told NPR, laughing as she confessed she was completely unfamiliar with the classic 1964 Clint Eastwood movie that catapulted him to fame and introduced many Americana to the film genre.
Auditioning for the role was a bit of fluke, Yazzie said. She was on a photography assignment for the Navajo Times when she learned there were two female speaking parts in the films.
“I could read the lines and my pronunciation was good … so I figured what the heck,” she said, adding that she was also encouraged by the success of the museum’s previous projects.
In 2013 the Navajo Nation Museum, based in Window Rock, Ariz., partnered with Lucas Films to dub a version of Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope and followed that in 2016 with Disney’s Finding Nemo.
The idea to translate popular, mainstream American films into Navajo — which is also called Diné — came from Manuelito Wheeler, the director of the museum.
“We wanted to do a project that was fun and got people excited,” Wheeler told NPR.
From the very beginning, he said, the films, the casting and even the script writing have served to “create a space where it is OK to have an open dialogue about why we don’t speak our language as much anymore.”
That included Wheeler until he got married. Although he was born on the reservation and spent his formative years there, it is his wife, a teacher and fluent Navajo speaker, who has helped him learn the language.
Navajo speakers are dwindling
In 2017, the Navajo Times reported there were about 7,600 living Navajo-only speakers and over 171,000 fluent speakers.
And the decline in recent decades has been shocking. The publication said 93% of Navajos spoke the language in 1980 but that dropped to 51% by 2010.
Sovereign tribal nations and the U.S. federal government have embarked on a series of programs to revive indigenous languages across the country that were wiped out or brought to the brink of extinction by brutal and punitive colonial policies. The 1819 Civilization Fund Act launched a horrific era of forced assimilation that eventually led to Indian boarding schools. The schools, which operated from 1860 until 1978, were part of a federal plan to strip native children of their cultural identity and language.
Among the government’s efforts to reestablish native languages are early education and Head Start programs as well as immersion language schools for young children.
Navajo elders wanted their own version of a classic Western
Wheeler’s hope is that the movies will spark an interest in people young and old. The first two films were aimed at attracting younger audiences, but after those projects he says he began hearing from elders in the community.
” ‘You should do a Western,’ they would tell me.”
“And then I thought about it, and their age group are the primary language keepers for Navajo and probably for all native peoples … so that put the seed in my mind.”
There was just one problem and it was a big one, Wheeler said.
Traditional westerns do a poor job of providing positive portrayals of Native Americans. “Typically they’re so offensive, whether they were belittling native people or portraying them as primitive or as savage and brutal.”
But in Sergio Leone’s 1964 film there are no Native Americans. He thought, problem solved!
The other plus is the style of the film. Spaghetti westerns, which were new to American audiences at the time, have a gritty look to them and feature flawed anti-heroes — a total contradiction of the glossy, polished, white-cowboy-hat westerns of the 50s.
“I mean, it’s just so cool,” Wheeler said. “I thought that would appeal to young Navajos who really have no affinity for the genre. It’s just not part of the world that they’re growing up in but they might connect to this.”
Younger generations need to ask for help
For Yazzie, being a part of the film has been a deeply meaningful experience.
Although she’s fluent, the 27-year-old said she rarely gets an opportunity to speak it in her everyday life. She is a student at San Diego State University, and is a few months away from getting her master’s degree to become a school counselor.
Growing up on the Navajo Nation reservation in Steamboat, Ariz., she was surrounded by the language and attended an Navajo immersion school “from kindergarten all the way up until my eighth grade year.”
It was her key tether to her maternal grandmother, who moved in with the family when Yazzie was still a toddler. “She only spoke Navajo.”
But more recently, she said, “I feel like I’m losing a little bit of it because I just don’t get the practice anymore,” she said. And even when she visits, her mother and family tend to slip into English pretty quickly.
“My mom went to boarding school and my uncles have gone to boarding school and that trauma is still a really recent” part of her family history, Yazzie explained.
But she is firm in her resolve not just to not lose the language and all of it’s complicated nuances, but to pass it on, she said.
“I think it’s on us, too. The younger generations. We have to let our parents know that we want to learn. That the ways that we can continue … is to say, Hey you have to help us. Tell me in Navajo!” she said.
At the premiere screening of Béeso Dah Yiníłjaa’ she said she would be thinking about her grandmother, who died a few years ago and who loved movies even though she didn’t speak English. She was a fan of Westerns “because they’re pretty easy to understand because of all of the action.”
Yazzie said: “I can’t wait to be in a theater and be around people who will really appreciate it or who might think, ‘Hey, I want to learn Navajo or get better at it.’ “