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Navajo language's red-carpet moment

ASU alum aims to preserve Navajo language through Hollywood films.
Dubbing "Finding Nemo" a challenge as Navajo lacks words to describe the ocean.
March 22, 2016

ASU alum to speak about dubbing such films as 'Star Wars' and 'Finding Nemo' in effort to help preserve his nation's language

The Navajo language is dying, and Manuelito Wheeler wants to change that.

Armed only with his heritage and the love of his people, Wheeler (pictured above) is taking steps to protect the Navajos’ history and culture — and he is receiving help from an unlikely place: Hollywood.

In an effort to preserve the language, Wheeler has teamed up with Disney to dub the films “Finding Nemo” and the original “Star Wars” with Navajo voice actors. The Arizona State University alumnus will speak about his journey during a lecture at the Heard Museum on March 24.

After graduating with a bachelor’s in fine arts from ASU, Wheeler was hired by the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona. He got his foot in the door as a carpenter’s assistant and, over the course of eight years, eventually became the museum's director, fostering the idea of creating a museum that reflected on the Navajo people in a positive way. However, he knew to create a truly lasting impact, a large project would be necessary — one that would reach both Natives and non-Natives alike.

“I’m trying to have projects out there that automatically change people’s perception of who we are,” Wheeler said. “To go even deeper, I’m trying to do projects that help us, the Navajo people, understand who we are and what we’re capable of.”

Wheeler and his wife, Jennifer, had discussed the idea of dubbing a film in Navajo for 15 years. In the mid-1990s, he purchased a "Star Wars" script off Amazon and asked his wife — an ASU alum who is fluent in Navajo and teaches a course at ASU — to translate the first 10 pages.

“I wasn’t expecting to get the translation back for a few days,” Wheeler said. “But she had it done in like 10 minutes. That's when the lightbulb went off and I knew it was entirely doable.”

woman in recording studio

ASU alum Jennifer Wheeler in the "Finding Nemo" dubbing studio, where she helped translate the movie.

Wheeler then reached out to Lucasfilm (before the company sold the franchise to Disney) to dub "Star Wars" into Navajo. The 2013 achievement received notice in the press; still, Wheeler looked at the movie as the first of many positive steps towards building an even bigger picture.

Through his partnership with Lucasfilm, Wheeler met Rick Dempsey, vice president of Disney Animation.

“(Wheeler) followed me into my office,” Dempsey said. “(He) wanted to do this with one of our animated films.”

After getting approval from John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Pixar Animation, and the Disney studio, the “Finding Nemo” project slowly started to move forward.

Creating a Navajo-dubbed version of that movie, from beginning to end, took roughly a year and a half, Dempsey said.

Finding Nemo Navajo screening posterThe final version was released last week and premiered at a screening in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Dubbing the film came with expected challenges, such as the technical aspects of voice-overs — like matching the characters’ lips to the voices, Wheeler said.

But a unique hurdle the team faced was the Navajo language's lack of words that describe the ocean, especially problematic for a film that takes place almost entirely in the sea. So the team used Navajo words that traditionally describe rivers instead.

“We’re showing our own Navajo people that our language is so adaptable, that it can be used in any situation that you want to put it in, and therefore it’s relevant,” Wheeler said. “And once it’s relevant, it makes people want to learn and understand it.”

“I just think it’s really exciting that it’s not just one movie, it’s now going to be two, which means the ball can keep rolling,” said Carrie Gillon, assistant professor of linguistics in ASU’s Department of English. “… The more prestigious Navajo appears to be to the people of the Nation, the more it’ll be used. So this is just one way of making the prestige slightly higher.” 

Wheeler will speak at the spring 2016 “Simon Ortiz and Labriola Center Lecture on Indigenous Land, Culture, and Community” at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 24, at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. The lecture is free and open to the public. For more information, visit

Top photo by Don James

Reporter , ASU Now

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Forging bonds in Germany

March 22, 2016

ASU professor wins Fulbright to further research of heritage learners

Andrew Ross, head of Learning Support Services in the School of International Letters and CulturesThe School of International Letters and Cultures is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. at Arizona State University, won a Fulbright award to visit Germany.

Ross studies “heritage learners” — people are studying a language who has some proficiency in or a cultural connection to that language through family, community, or country of origin. For example, students of Latino heritage who are studying Spanish are heritage learners.

Ross received a seminar grant, and recently spent two weeks in Germany collaborating with university partners and touring historical and cultural sites. The grant is designed to familiarize American university administrators with Germany's higher education system, society and culture.

Ross said he plans to organize a conference at ASU later this year to gather together language faculty and researchers in migration, transborder studies and heritage language learning.

“My hope is that the conference will lead to ongoing international collaborations and interdisciplinary research across institutions,” said Ross, who also is a clinical associate professor.

Ross answered some questions about his Fulbright project:

Question: Please describe your project in Germany:

Answer: The seminar will be an extremely useful opportunity to forge collaborative connections with partners in Germany, and to gather information about programmatic models that address the needs of heritage learners and first-generation university students. ASU is committed to these populations.

My work has for the past several years included the creation and management of learning exchanges between institutions in the form of the Hispanidades Project, now CIRCLE. The project itself targets heritage learners, and its aim is to develop their facility with professional and formal language registers in their heritage language, while at the same time giving them an opportunity to do cultural research within their communities and communicate with student colleagues at partner institutions on mutually-agreed topics of culture and language.

Hispanidades students at ASU have worked with partners at California State University – San Marcos, the University of Washington, and Columbia to document the Hispanic experience in these very different parts of the country. Topics of exploration have ranged from music and mural art in Phoenix, to Dreamers’ experiences, to issues of social justice and the distribution of social services within divided communities. The students’ work provides a vehicle for both cultural and linguistic research, and the project has recently been reconceived at ASU to involve service learning and community outreach. Although I do not teach the Hispanidades courses, I am responsible for supervising those who do, and for developing and continuing the exchanges outside our institution.

CIRCLE, the outgrowth of Hispanidades, is a project that brings together heritage and intermediate/advanced language learners based in different cities together in a joint exploration of cultural identity. CIRCLE defines common areas of exploration and empowers language learners to validate their linguistic skills by facilitating authentic exchanges with local communities. In CIRCLE, students engage in research ranging from observing local communities to conducting fieldwork and interviews within these communities, to carrying out historical and sociological analysis. The students at each collaborating institution then create, curate, and share original digital artifacts, based upon the ethnographic research they have conducted, and use these artifacts as the basis of a sustained reflective analysis of the value of these interactions and of the culture shared between and among them.

German  universities’ experiences with heritage populations will be useful to understand, both to  inform my continuing work with heritage learners and their communities here in Arizona, and to seek   and form partnerships and exchanges with German institutions. It will be extremely useful within the context of the seminar to visit institutions and community groups in cities with large immigrant populations as well, including Berlin, Hamburg and Köln.

Particularly given recent events in Europe, the development of programs in which dialogue within communities of migration, and between those communities and their “host” societies seems to me to be of crucial importance. It is my hope that my participation in this seminar will lead to ongoing work between partner institutions that seeks to empower and educate members of migrant communities to research and address issues of integration, political and religious power, and intercultural communication in ways that will lessen the likelihood of systemic misunderstanding and concomitant violence. CIRCLE, as mentioned above, is particularly well-suited to inculcate the values of critical analysis, observation, cultural understanding and the tolerance of a range of social values and perspectives. But the first step in developing a meaningful engagement with partner institutions will be to understand how German institutions see and respond to questions that have immediate currency on both sides of the Atlantic.

Q: Why did you decide to pursue this project?

A: Issues of access to education, particularly for communities in migration, have been of interest to me since student teaching in the ‘80s in Eastern Washington state, where I saw significant numbers of students whose formal learning was interrupted by their families’ work cycles in the agricultural industry. Since coming to ASU, I’ve been fortunate to work with heritage learners of Spanish and to co-create a project intended to give them linguistic and technological tools so that they can tell the stories of their communities on their own terms, in their own way.  It occurred to me that universities in Germany and other Western European countries have an opportunity to reach out to students from a migrant background — I wanted to see if they were doing that, and if so, what we could learn from their experience.

Q: How will your work in Germany relate to your work at ASU?

A: My work in Germany gave me the opportunity to make connections with colleagues at universities and technical “hochschulen” with whom I hope to build working relationships that will give ASU students and faculty a chance to pursue research on topics surrounding migration, integration, support for new residents and citizens, and the policies that support their success in the university system.

Q: What was a typical day like for you there?

A: It’s hard to characterize any day in Germany as typical. The program was a short-term look at the higher education system in Germany; we visited a number of institutions, both as a group and in smaller subgroups; we met with politicians and policy analysts, including one of the mayors of Berlin; we traveled to a number of cities, including Wittenberg, Frankfurt, and Bonn. The Fulbright staff we worked with were fantastic, and had amazing energy — I think I averaged 9 to 10 miles of walking a day.

Q: What was the best part of your experience there?

A: The best part was making connections and seeing how things are done in a higher education system that is a point of pride for its nation. Germans enthusiastically support their universities, and are proud that their tax dollars go to institutions that provide an excellent education for their young people. 

Q: Were there challenges?

A: Dusting off my German from a bilingual pre-school was the major challenge. But every day in Germany brought new vocabulary, and new insights into the culture and language.

Q: What would you tell a fellow a faculty member who is contemplating applying for a Fulbright?

A: Go. The Fulbright program is an amazing benefit that we as U.S. scholars and university staff have available to us. We need to build a greater understanding of other countries and cultures, and we ought to, as teachers, be engaged in opening the world to our students.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now