A young adult emerges from a dwelling onto an arid landscape. Irritated at his adopted parents, he kicks the dirt of his homeland. He walks a short distance and gazes at the sunset as he contemplates belonging, uncertainty, purpose, and dreams.
Depending on the number of suns disappearing beneath the horizon, this could be a scene on Tatooine, of moisture farmer Luke Skywalker wondering where he belongs in the universe. Or it could be a young sheepherder on the Navajo Nation, pondering the exact same thing.
Since it debuted in 1977, “Star Wars” has resonated with audiences around the globe. It's themes, messages, and settings, though, have made it especially popular with indigenous communities, especially those of the Southwest. Over the past four decades, the franchise has inspired Native artists to create works that integrate their own cultures into the narrative, and has been used as a tool to keep indigenous cultures alive.
A New HopeAt the 2013 Navajo Nation Fair, which occurs around the Fourth of July, families gathered at the rodeo arena at the fairgrounds in Window Rock, Arizona, to watch the original Star Wars film, “A New Hope.” The film was already 36 years old, but for many members of the audience, this was the first time they could hear the movie – or any movie – in their first language. For others, it was the first time they'd seen their culture integrated into something they'd been a fan of their entire lives.
“We were discussing how we could bring awareness to Navajo language and get the Navajo population in general more engaged with our language,” said Manuelito Wheeler, director of the Navajo Nation Museum and one of the key people who conceived the project and got the ball rolling.
“Having films in Navajo, I've found, creates environments where if you don't know Navajo, it's OK, where if you know a lot of Navajo, it's OK.”
Star Wars was selected because of its cultural cachet and broad intergenerational appeal, he said, in addition to the spiritual and metaphysical themes of the film.
It took several years to get through the right channels and pitch the idea to someone at Lucasfilm, but once the connection was made, the company was tremendously supportive, Wheeler said.
Funding was secured, the script was carefully translated, and voice actors were cast in May of 2013. The project was completed in a short amount of time.
The date that the Navajo dub premiered, near Independence Day, was fitting, Wheeler said.
“I think it was appropriate that we were making a comeback with our language during a time that signified the downfall of our language,” he said.
The screening of the film was intended to be a one-time deal, but people responded in an overwhelmingly positive way, he said. Soon the dub was being released in DVD form, sold at Walmart, and shown around the country.
“It's so interesting to watch these movies with the public because it's just constant laughter – not laughing at the movie – it's just the joy of seeing your language in this area you never even thought possible,” Wheeler said. “At the end of the movie, there's always an emphatic cheer from the crowd. They're so proud that this happened.”
Since Star Wars was dubbed into Navajo, the same team has worked on several more translations. “Finding Nemo” came out in 2016 and “A Fistful of Dollars” will premiere this spring. Wheeler's team is presently casting singers to record a Navajo version of the cloyingly catchy viral hit song “Baby Shark.”
The Force AwakensAt the same time Wheeler was working on getting “A New Hope” dubbed, indigenous artists across the Southwest were integrating Star Wars into their own work. Some, such as painter Ryan Singer, work in two dimensions while others, such as pop artist Rod Velarde, work in three.
The scope of Native artists integrating Star Wars into their work may not have been readily apparent until 2016, when the first Indigenous Comic Con was held in Albuquerque. The convention was organized to celebrate comic books, games, film, and television with an indigenous perspective and highlight the work being done by indigenous people. The entire gamut of pop culture was on display, but Star Wars was a major presence.
The convention set the mind of at least one attendee to work. Tony Thibodeau, the anthropology collections manager for the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, Arizona, began curating an exhibit featuring the Star Wars-inspired work of about 25 different Southwestern indigenous artists. The exhibition, titled “The Force is with our People” opened in October 2019 and will run through May of this year.
“What we're trying to explore in this exhibit is the cultural connections between the Star Wars narrative and Native stories and oral traditions on the Colorado Plateau, and to really kind of explore the influence that Star Wars has had on these native artists in particular, but also by extension native communities on the Colorado Plateau,” Thibodeau said.
The artists on display in the museum and at the conventions differ in their histories with the franchise and their approaches to integrating it into their work. They also highlight different areas in which the franchise speaks to them and their cultures.
Ryan Singer, a Navajo, grew up near Tuba City, Arizona, and was a kid when the first Star Wars film came out. He grew making fan art of the franchise and as an adult creates paintings that mash up pop culture and life on the reservation. For instance, his “Tuba City Spaceport” combines elements of the real-life town with those of Mos Eisley.
“Anything I can take from my childhood, memories I had as a kid – you kind of mix them in Star Wars, with characters and stuff like that, and the possibilities are pretty much endless,” he said.
Recently, his work has also begun to portray Native American issues through the lens of Star Wars. “(De)Colonized Ewok” directly confronts cultural assimilation, albeit on the forest moon of Endor.
Singer suggests that the root inspiration for much of his work is the same reason it appeals to his culture: the setting. Tatooine, the planet where much of the first movie takes place, physically resembles the Four Corners.
“Even when you see the land speeder, the speeder is kind of beat up – it's got scratches, it's got dirt all over it. Everything on Tatooine just seems like it's beat up and dusty,” he said. “It reminded me of how things were on the reservation.”
Jason Garcia also grew up a fan of the original trilogy, and commemorates his childhood fascination with it in some of his art. A member of the Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, Garcia creates traditional clay works from materials gathered near the Pueblo and the Four Corners. They blend traditional Pueblo designs with images Western pop culture, often depicting the influence of comics, films, and video games on his community – and vice versa. (Princess Leia's iconic hairstyle, after all, borrows from the Hopi maiden hairstyle and that of rebel women in the Mexican Revolution.)
For him, a large intersection between Pueblo culture and the world of Star Wars is the Force.
“It's this force that emanates from life from rocks, planets, water ... that's in all living beings essentially,” he said. “We all share this connection.”
Jicarilla Apache artist Rod Velarde creates what he calls “Native Pop Art” by taking images from pop culture and incorporating native art into them. These include Stormtroopers, Darth Vader's helmet, and the droid BB-8 covered in Apache designs.
For him, it's the space itself in Star Wars, not the planets, that connect with his culture.
“Our people – doesn't matter which tribe – they all look to the heavens and lights and use the constellations for directions when it was time to plan, or, you know, using the moon and the sun cycles. Everything was directed to the heavens where all the stars were at. The same images were used for ceremonies ... the Apache crown dancers, they put stars on their crowns or their body,” he said.
One of the most striking items in the Museum of Northern Arizona's collection is cosplayer Dezbah Rose's Diné Rey costume. Rose has been dressing up in costumes her entire life, and an early memory is her family helping her create a Queen Amidala costume when “The Phantom Menace” came out. Today, she creates a range of costumes that combine indigenous and pop culture.
Rose created her first indigenous cosplay for the first Indigenous Comic Con. A variation on Rey's outfit from “The Force Awakens,” the costume incorporates her father's Navajo heritage (Rose is also Yuchi and Chippewa). She added turquoise silver pieces to the costume in the same way Navajo women often do with their shirts, and added her father's concha belt, a trade bag (a woven bag traded within the Southwest and South America), and her Navajo moccasins.
“I always feel like that's where I start off indigenizing cosplays,” she said. “First off I'm going to wear my moccasins with this because I feel like that's always very representative of my different tribes. ... All of our moccasins are different and they all represent the land that those people come from.”
Beyond the costume itself, Rey's character spoke to Rose on a personal level.
“The lack of her having identity or having that identity crisis, I kind of felt as a Native person,”she said “Growing up in an urban setting kind of removed from my people and having to like relearn a lot of like my cultural knowledge because of that. Rey is going on a similar journey of discovering who she is, and I think that's why I love her so much – and then she's just like a really strong badass.”
Lightning struck twice at that first Indigenous Comic Con, with cosplayer Liz McKenzie also designing a Navajo Rey costume. While her costume drew inspiration from the same source as Rose's, it had a few variations. For instance, her father and his partner helped her make a staff like the one Rey uses in Episode VII, adding a few feathers as their own flourish.
McKenzie recalls living in the camps on the Standing Rock Reservation while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. She and her fellow protesters were excited to see “Rogue One,” but the situation they were in and the polar vortex made that impossible while she was there.
When she returned home in January 2017 and finally saw the movie, it was profoundly moving.
“It was so incredibly powerful, and I was just weeping the whole way through because it just seems like it was the story of the Water Protectors down to a T. We're fighting for what we believe in and our people and the stand we're taking. It just resonated with us so much that after that, it's just hard to not see it whenever you see something Star Wars,” she said. “Down to Baby Yoda, we're like, 'That's ours.'”
Like Garcia and his pueblo beliefs, McKenzie feels that Star Wars has a spiritual connection to the Navajo through the Force.
“With Diné culture, the concept of Hozho – balance – is exactly like the Force. ... The force concept under a different name has really just always been the root of the Diné people, and so I feel like it's something that we all really relate to,” she said.
Duane Koyawena, a Hopi artist, echoed a similar sentiment.
“There's a lot of significance about the good life and the bad life in Hopi culture,” he said. “The Dark Side and the Force.”
Combining traditional Hopi art with images from Star Wars helps preserve the Hopi culture, he said, by helping the youth identify images from their traditional beliefs.
Koyawena is one of the only artists who the Museum of Northern Arizona commissioned work from for its exhibition – but his creation is a show-stealer. The museum had a functional, life-size R2-D2 built, complete with movement and sounds, and asked Koyawena to design the exterior. The resulting “Hopi R2” can be controlled with a Playstation 4 controller and heard throughout the museum on a quiet day.
The Force UnleashedIt has taken some time, but as Star Wars has evolved, so has the way it portrays indigenous peoples within its own universe.
Lee Francis founded Albuquerque's Red Planet, the only Native comic book shop in the world; Native Realities, a press that serves as an outlet for indigenous storytelling in graphic novel and book form; and the Indigenous Comic Con, which has evolved into Indigipop X, a convention that happens in both Albuquerque and Denver, as has gone international – Indigenous Comic Con Australia was held at the end of November.
He said it's already easy for many indigenous peoples to connect with the themes of the Star Wars movies.
“I think there's an immediate identification of Native peoples with the rebellion. I mean, honestly, like, as a Pueblo person myself, I'm like, it's the Pueblo Rebellion, baby. We fought the Empire and we won,” he said. “One of my ancestors back there was Han Solo and one of my ancestors back there was Luke Skywalker. Popé was like Luke Skywalker, right?”
But at the same time, indigenous cultures within Star Wars, often signified by alien races such as the Tusken Raiders of Tatooine or the Ewoks of the Forest Moon of Endor, have been portrayed through the lens of Western colonialism. The Tuskens were portrayed as stereotypical “red devils” to be fought, while the Ewoks were “noble savages,” essentially good because they haven't been corrupted by civilization, but easily duped by a droid impersonating a golden god.
“I always love to reimagine Star Wars from the indigenous perspective. The Tusken folks, you know, those are our peoples, right? That's like Apache homeland right there. That's Comanche homeland – you don't go across there, they're going to mess you up. And if you're having your little pod races over there, they're going to shoot at you too, so good luck,” he said.
But he was excited to see this directly acknowledged recently in “The Mandalorian.” In one episode, the titular character and a sidekick have to cross part of Tatooine but are stopped by Tusken Raiders. Instead of fighting them, the Mandalorian insists his companion pay the Tuskens for passage across what they believe is their land.
“I was like, 'That's because they're the indigenous people of Tatooine, straight up,' right?” Francis exclaimed.
Hopefully moments like that represent a change in the way the creators of Star Wars portray indigenous cultures, not just because it represents a more conscious approach to storytelling, but because it makes it that much easier for real indigenous peoples to connect with the story.
“Natives have been represented in all sorts of mediums, and the fact that we get to take part in those mediums now, in this next generation, is what's so exciting,” Francis said. “It's always been a portrayal of us, not with us. And now we get to be a part of that because we have chosen to take that stand and say, 'No, no, we are indiginerds. We get to be here too, and we get to enjoy all these same things.'”
“The Force is with Our People” runs through May 25 at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. For more information, visit https://musnaz.org/. Indigipop X 2020 will be held March 25 to 29 in downtown Albuquerque. For more information, visit https://www.indigipopx.com/.