Monday, July 1, 2013

Considering the Navajo dub of "Star Wars"

Extinction and Traditional Narrative: The Navajo Dub of Star Wars

By Bruce Fisher

            I have nothing much to say about Jurassic Park, except that, as I surfed past it looking for the weather forecast, I understood that Jurassic Park has become traditional literature, as has Superman, Spider-Man, and Star Wars. The messages in the Spielberg movie about dinosaurs are pretty-near universal articles of faith, and much more explicitly so than the message of Frankenstein and even of the other Michael Crichton stories that have been scaring us with the science-run-amok story for the past two hundred years. Science, they all say, runs amok. The understanding of advanced intellects, they say, is nothing compared to the power of nature.
And Jurassic Park says something else: Extinction should be forever. But now, with the news that speakers of the allegedly doomed North American language of the Na-Dene family known as Navajo will translate and dub Star Wars into Navajo, explicitly so that their children will learn and speak Navajo better, the world is getting a new message about power, culture, survival, renewal, and also about the possibilities for traditional narrative. It’s about to be a great day, again, for the ancient and honorable profession of story-telling – and it’s going to be a pretty damned good day for the Navajo language, too.
We in the mundane world of the dominant culture know lots of old stories, but we know them in English. We know lots of stock and well-established characters – in English. We know how the stories turn out in the end, just as if we are all illiterate peasants sitting around a hearth hearing the same old stories we’ve always heard, or hunter-gatherers raised in a traditional pre-literate society sitting around a fire hearing the same old stories they’ve always heard. We know the simple truth of the Jurassic Park parable: science runs amok, and nature overwhelms the works of mere humans. And we know the inspiring, hopeful truth of the Star Wars story, too: small bands of fighters can survive overpowering force.
            The older among us grew up with these instructive moral tales. For Baby Boomers, TV provided the Old Testament epics for holiday viewing, when we were all reliably to be found clustered around the living-room appliance, and those Old Testament epics (did all of them star Charlton Heston?) reinforced the stories that had defined Western culture for 2,000 years. The texts were The Ten Commandments, The Robe, Cleopatra and Ben-Hur, and they were for many years broadcast around the Passover and Easter holidays. Then came the 1990s, when Easter/Passover became the season for replays of the Star Wars films. The Lucas movies were competing texts, offering competition for tradition on the subject of the numinous. In the absence of a national authority that compels that the public airwaves carry repeated showings of genuine, deep-rooted cultural traditions – origin myths, deliverance narratives, the Christ story of divine intervention in human affairs – most families watch that regulated public space that was deeded over to folks who sell whichever texts will attract measurable audiences.
We watched with interest, but also with some sadness, as Generation Millennial came to see holiday-time stories as fungible. Jesus melded with Santa Claus and then with the re-created dinosaurs Jurassic Park, though the tradition did not itself degrade to the point that watching Jurassic Park meant it was time to open presents, nor did the Star Wars suite call us to break the Lenten fast or eat the bitter herbs.
The reintroduction of those origin stories, and of those old tales of national identity and of divine intervention, are left to other kinds of networks – and now, to a new idiom entirely, and for a new purpose: to reinforce the identity of a tiny group (the Navajos are the largest single Native American language group in the USA, but still number only 200,000 or so). There will be dynamism, evolution, and challenge in a North American language that has been losing speakers for the past three decades. And a new narrative, a movie, is the vehicle for a persistence. Wow.
+ + +
When, before the full onset of the iAge, we tried to imagine how narrative worked before there was electronic technology or even technology of printing, we had trouble – because narrative used to be a human production unmediated by tools. Before the personalized public spaces of YouTube were invented; before the market-segmentation strategies of HBO and The Learning Channel and the narrow-cast; before broadcast television; before broadcast radio; before newspapers of general circulation; before the broadsheets and chapbooks and pamphlets of a few large cities of Europe, there were stories.
Yea verily, stories. The stories of great complexity, of genuinely or even of seemingly great antiquity, were the tradition and the traditional practice of those who told them, and of those who heard them. It is those traditional narratives that defined and reinforced group identity.
And in those stories resided power. Stories themselves reshaped maps at the very time when our country was shaping the map of North America. In 1803, when Thomas Jefferson bought Louisiana and sent Lewis and Clark out to redefine those ancient Native North American spaces as new American spaces, there were Europeans setting out to define themselves by collecting and transcribing and redacting traditional narratives – acting as discoverers, and as preservers, too, using the technology of printing to save stories so that people without that technology, the story-tellers themselves, would live beyond their mortal limits.
It would happen, in the 1830s, that the story of Native American cultural distinctiveness, and of its potential extinction, became a part of the European elite narrative that stimulated a cultural preservation movement inside Europe. In 1832, Prince Maximilian of Wied hired the Swiss painter Karl Bodmer and boats and guides and labored up the Missouri River to the Earth Lodge villages of the Mandan. Before his book was published with Bodmer’s watercolors in 1840, the Mandan had been nearly wiped out by a smallpox epidemic. Extinction was a possibility.
The brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm began their career of publishing collections of folk-tales in 1812, adding their version of the Edda in 1815. Irish folklorists were undertaking the same work, gathering Gaelic-language narratives and translating them, in the 1820s. Elias Lonnrot began his work in Finnish-speaking Karelia in 1827, when the rural population there was suffering a radical depopulation. These efforts to save, preserve, and publish carried on for decades – and they were put to use, political use. The map of Europe would be changed by the unlikely political act of collecting and publishing traditional narratives.
Grimm’s “fairy tales” were a part of this story. Boomers’ children know them less well, but Americans of the Boomer generation were deeply imbued with their work, not just because so many Americans are of German descent, but because the folk-tales that the two Grimm brothers collected and published in the 1830s were, in translation, our 1960s bedtime stories. Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella… Walt Disney amplified our bedtime stories, just as Hollywood reiterated what we knew from Sunday school in the big epics starring Charlton Heston, Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Curtis, Laurence Olivier, and that general-utility ancient man, Kirk Douglas.
There wasn’t a “Germany” when the Grimms did their work collecting the traditional narratives of German-speaking peasants. There was the Austrian empire and the Prussian empire. There were two dozen principalities where German-speaking peoples lived. The “nation” that the Grimms helped form did not yet have a single political expression. The enterprise of listening to, and of transcribing and then collating and publishing German folk-tales is credited, or blamed, for having enabled and emerging national consciousness for the Germans.
The poetic and musical story-telling practices of other rural peoples who lived within the boundaries of European empires became of interest because politically-active people, even in the British Empire, found traditional narratives critically important for creating a sense of group identity.
The politics of traditional stories was true identity politics. The British Empire had crushed the Jacobite rebellion and the tribesmen of Scotland in 1745. As the imperial victors, they still had had to cope with that ongoing identity of their subject neighbor. We know how they handled it: the British selectively incorporated the hostile northern natives, with the emphasis on military reorganization of Scottish warrior societies and clans, which is how the kilt-wearing regiments and their war-pipes and their plaids became militarily domesticated. Scottish narratives, however, had a different fate. Thanks to the Anglo-Scottish lawyer-novelist Walter Scott, his modern invented romantic narratives of pre-conquest Scotland were published in mass editions and thus became much more market-accessible to the interested elite, even to the Scottish nationalists, than were Gaelic-language stories, which were remote, and foreign, and which remain exotic. Robert Burns, albeit with verse that required knowledge of a dialect, was an innovator rooted squarely in literary society notwithstanding his traditional subject matter. Traditional narrative was quite useless, or had been superseded, in that famous conquered place, and the conqueror liked his own, modern version of the old stories, and Scots themselves were rewarded for producing the new material in a language that was close enough to the language of the conqueror for the greater British Empire to read. The politics of Scotland had been decided: its national consciousness would not be extended or created through traditional narrative. Its national consciousness, and its traditional narrative, would remain a little, manageable, quaint part of a great, overwhelming, English-speaking empire.
That’s not how it worked in North America. For the most part, demography was destiny for traditional narrative. There are perhaps a few hundred, perhaps only a few dozen, who can understand the annual recitation of the Gaiwi’io in the Mohawk language.  A few thousand understand enough of the L- or D-dialects of Dakota to understand the Sun Dance songs and Inktomi stories, but already at the 1985 Medicine Lodge of the Nakon people near Tabex’a Wakpa in Montana, fewer than 50 people could understand. In Dinetah, the Navajo term for their homeland, there are still monolingual Navajos, but English is otherwise ubiquitous.
                                                + + +
The same day I surfed past “Jurassic Park,” I filched my daughter’s Kalevala.
It had been a good long time since the nameless poets of the Finnish national epic had told of “steadfast old Vainamoinen” and “strong young Lemminkainen” and of the creative blacksmith Ilmarinen, and of all those monsters and battles and intrigues and jealousies and beautiful and tragic, stubborn and suicidal maidens, and done so in free verse, episode after episode.
A copy of the Kalevala had been a Christmas present to one of the children – the one who is off, now, again, in Scandanavia doing more of this stuff. The edition was Francis Peabody Magoun’s translation from the Finnish original that a Swede named Elias Lönnrot had compiled in the 1830s. As a college student, I had stumbled upon the story of a young man from the big city who had put on his cross-country skis and traveled far into the hinterland, to isolated farms and hamlets, and there had seen an ancient tradition alive – ancient in the 1830s, when our American ancestors had been figuring out their own national identity. The amateur philologist Elias Lönnrot had taken notes at the isolated farms he’d visited as a public-health doctor, literally skiing to his patients. He’d made longhand transcriptions of the oral poetry of illiterate story-tellers who had performed their narratives in a strictly structured poetic manner, composing their texts without benefit of reference to any written text. My kid’s paperback edition contains the same strange photographs I had seen when I was in school, of pairs of middle-aged and older bearded men – photographs taken when photography itself was new, and when the specific tradition of the illiterate Finnish narrative poets of that northwestern-most part of what was then the Russian Empire was old, very very old, almost dead, threatened with extinction because of the ravages of communicable diseases that the physician Lonnrott was without drugs to treat. The pictures are of pairs of men seated together outside of the cabins and farmhouses, poor subsistence-farmer abodes, where they were to perform, or had just performed, the songs, sometimes performed with accompaniment from a kantele, a wire harp like a zither that neo-folkloric Finnish metal-heads now use, too. The songs were narratives, stories, in which first the lead singer would describe a scene or an action or introduce a character in a phrase, and then the partner would, in a rejoinder phrase, never two, repeat or extend the action or amplify the attribute of the character just mentioned, all the while facing the lead singer, holding the lead singer’s hands, and both of them following what for them were the normal rules or conventions of poetic construction, rocking back and forth, with the audience gathered around them, listening in as best they could from only inches away.
The Harvard professor Francis Peabody Magoun, building on the work of the tragic adventurer-scholar Milman Parry and of Parry’s graduate assistant Albert Bates Lord, developed Parry’s radical idea: that the songs of the blind poet Homer, those huge narratives, were built the same way that the old Finns’ narratives had been built: with rules or conventions of poetic construction Parry called “formulas.” Parry died in 1935. Lord and Magoun outlived him by decades; Magoun wrote scholarly articles about “oral-formulaic poetry,” and translated the Kalevala, and enjoyed a productive career in great esteem, all building on the work of a guy who began investigating Homer but who seems wholly Indiana Jones. I don’t know if Milman Parry had a bull-whip, but in the photographs, he sure did have a broad hat, and he sure did go deep into what for Americans was an exotic and faraway place – not Finland, not the Upper Missouri River where Prince Maximilian and Karl Bodmer and their American contemporary George Catlin went, and not to Navajo country, but to exotic, far-distant Yugoslavia. This 30-year-old American went in 1933 to a “new” place, a new country, the place that had just been liberated from the rule of the just-dismembered Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. He went through and past the big cities of Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo, past Mostar, to the tiny villages and hamlets of Bosnia. The European ferment of identity-seeking was still in full bubble: not far north and east, at the very same time, musicologists and composers including Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly were visiting Hungarian-speaking villagers in the Transylvania region of Romania, collecting indigenous folk music from people whose identities for a thousand years had been Magyar, but whose citizenship had just recently changed because of cataclysmic politics – politics, and nation-creating, and nation-destroying, that would get unimaginably uglier  within only a decade.
But these boys were scholars. They weren’t polticians or operatives of great imperial powers. They were, like students today who are looking for deep-rooted, genuine cultural expressions, thinking about things ancient.
The burning question for them: Had Homer been an oral poet, using the ancient traditions of composition and of pre-literate literary form to create stories that lived as long as his unrecorded performances? Or had Homer been a writer like Robert Burns, relying on tradition, translating it into a poetic idiom, but, from the first, a writer, saving his performances using the precursor of the technology we use today?
Parry in particular believed that the recurrence of formulae – of those repeated phrases like “the wine-dark sea” in Homer’s verse – were evidence of old performances. Parry thought that what he and his young protégé Lord encountered when they travelled around in rural Bosnia, and when they attended the performances of illiterate “singers of tales” in taverns and coffeehouses, was an echo, a survival, a contemporary 1930s version of what Homer himself had done. Old Bosnian men, without benefit of a written text, would perform rhythmic, poetic epics on historical subjects just as Homer had, and just as the Finns whom Elias Lonrott had heard, and that these old men were adhering in their performances to strict conventions in how the story is told, utilizing formulae – in Bosnia, accompanying themselves on their one-string violin called a gusls, and thus carrying on the ancient tradition and the ancient stories and the ancient text-less texts – but ever, like poetry-slam poets today, like improvisers today, creating anew.
Magoun, the translator of Lönnrot’s Kalevala, entered this conversation with Parry and, after Parry died, with Lord, and noted that something similar must have happened in a text he knew and that many more of us now know, called Beowulf.  Magoun spotted such tricks or techniques as the old exotic singers from Finland had used in the poems of Kalevala. Magoun wrote a very controversial article entitled “The Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” in which he argued that the great epic narrative that inspired J.R.R Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series was composed by somebody who practiced, knew and wholly embraced the rules and conventions of the illiterate Finnish-speaking peasants of Russia’s northwest frontier, those being the same rules and conventions of the illiterate Serbo-Croatian-speaking peasants of Yugoslavia’s isolated Bosnian region – except that the Beowulf poet had done it a thousand years earlier than today and a thousand years after Homer, in another language and for a very different nation far, far from either Finland or Yugoslavia or Greece or Hollywood.
Magoun published his article about Beowulf before he published his translation of Kalevala. But Magoun’s fellow scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, the soon-to-be-famous J.R.R. Tolkein, also wrote a scholarly article about Beowulf, entitled “Beowulf and the Monsters,” all about Grendel and the dragon and such. Tolkein was interested in the symbols; Magoun was interested in the mechanics, the techniques, the how of transmitting stories of great antiquity from person to person, from generation to generation, in scattered communities of illiterate farmers, fishers and herders who, if they’d formed no national group for most of the centuries of their existence as a people, had yet formed a community of the knowledgeable.
And this is the connection to our own mass, folk, un-lettered, un-schooled, wholly vernacular understanding of shared stories.
                                    + + +
Everybody over the age of six in America today knows the Star Wars story, of valiant heroes prevailing against big bad guys, and special divine favor – the Force – empowering the virtuous twins.  Perhaps we know the Jurassic Park story even better. It’s the Frankenstein story, and the story of all those other Michael Crichton books, and of lots of science fiction: science runs amok. Everybody knows that story.
As for the Kalevala, everybody in that group of peasants in the Finnish-speaking part of the northwestern corner of the old Russian Empire in Elias Lönnrot’s time almost two hundred years ago knew the Kalevala stories. They knew about the old man Vainamoinen who wanted to get married, and they knew that his mother was the sky spirit who’d carried him in her belly for thirty-some years before birthing him – and folks knew what that story meant. Everybody up there in the region they still call Karelia knew as well the character of the young black-bearded Lemminkainen, who was so angry at not having been invited to a wedding party at a place called North Farm that he crashed the place after the event, and then demanded food and drink and then, in his rage at having missed all the doings and all the dancing with all the young women he hadn’t been invited to dance with, they knew the ugly outcome of that story –- that he’d committed a murder out of rage at having been excluded. And folks there knew about how the widow subsequently sang some songs and that her singing brought an army into existence to avenge her lost man. Just as we know about the Ewoks in Star Wars and the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, everybody in that tiny, scattered ethnic group of folks who spoke more or less the same Finnish language knew about the minor Kalevala characters as well – about Ilmarinen, who’d  made a sort of hand-cranked grinding device that magically produced salt, flour and money, all three; about various goddesses and crones and virgins, and about various magical objects like sleds and spears and swords, and various magical fish and bears, wolves and birds and snakes, and various places and districts, in which various magical acts were commonplace, such as the ability to “sing” armies into existence the way that that widow had done after Lemminkainen had killed her man. These listeners to the songs that those pairs of singers sang, before writing and tape recorders and MP3s, knew these stories, and accepted the notion that a character could compose songs, chants, poems or narratives that actually would enchant a love-object or drive snakes from a barley-field or drive monsters back into the underworld or cause an army to come into existence. These folks believed in the magic power of words!
 These Finnish folk knew as well that the way to hear these stories was to attend the performances of old men whom the skiing city-boy Elias Lönnrot witnessed singing their narratives, composing them as they went along, “making it up” in the way that Eric Clapton on guitar or John Coltrane on saxophone or last night’s most famous rapper raps and creates, by singing their songs in the presence of people who know the stories, know the idiom, know the rules of how those stories get told and know who is a good performer, a really good performer, and can tell which pair of old singing men were good from another pair who were just okay.
When Elias Lönnrot took his notebooks back home to the city and published this compilation and called it Kalevala, which just means “songs from the Kaleva district,” he transformed that narrative tradition. He made it into a political fact. Lonrott made possible a nationalist, separatist politics based on poetry and identity. The traditional narratives of the illiterate poets of the Kaleva district became, when the medium changed from the moment of performance into a printed book that could be read and re-read and passed around and then, as it was, a translated book, a tool for creating a national consciousness. Traditional narrative, once printed, captured on pages, helped create a self-governing country.
That’s why there are monuments to Lönnrot in Finland. There wasn’t a separate, self-governing country called Finland when Lönnrot collected traditional narratives from the Kaleva district. After he did, and in part because he did, there was.
J.R.R. Tolkein admitted, or bragged, or wistfully hoped (one can’t tell from his statements) that what he was after when he wrote his Lord of the Rings books was to create a national myth for England, as if he wanted to be, in the years after World War II when he wrote, an English Lonnrot. That should strike one as pretty darned funny, because Tolkein lived in a country that had just triumphed after the most brutal of wars then known, a country that had known itself for centuries, and not only knew its stories, and reveled in its language, but was host to a world trying to prove itself competent in English. Tolkein mined Beowulf, and the Kalevala, and Homer, and lifted heavily not from the German Grimm tales but from the German epic poem Nibelungenlied, and from the Icelandic sagas. Tolkein created a language, Elvish, partly out of Finnish and partly out of Welsh and partly out of Anglo-Saxon, and all sorts of characters that reflect various Christian and pagan symbols, and meant it all to be …. English?
In our house, the older kids became extremely enthusiastic for the Lord of the Rings books when the movies came. We saw the movies. They were outraged and uncomprehending when, at the theater for the first, and then again at the second, I fell asleep amidst all the carnage of Orcs and spears and swords. They read the books. When the girls pressed them on me, I said, “No thanks, I read the originals.” The girls were even more outraged at me turning down the books than at snoozing through the movies. “Whaddya mean you read the original?”
This meant the generational turn-over of the dog-eared copy of Beowulf, in Anglo-Saxon, a leftover from the days of  reading Magoun and Parry and Lord, especially Lord, because it was his book The Singer of Tales, the one about all those explorations in Yugoslavia among the 20th century Bosnians that had composed poetry just like the 19th century Finns or the 5th century BC Greeks of Homer’s time – the book that had caused so much excitement in the 1970s for a certain few college students, in the way that college kids are still capable of being excited.
Apparently, that kind of foolishness and romanticism passes generations. Within weeks, the kids were fighting over Seamus Heaney’s facing-page translation of Beowulf, English on one side, Anglo-Saxon on the other. After Beowulf, they wanted the Dream of the Rood and the Battle of Brunaburgh. Then Icelandic sagas. The Odyssey and the Iliad got their turns, then King Arthur, and The Song of Roland. And then, the ultimate in European traditional literature, the Kalevala, which is full of an ancient weirdness or primitivity. It really grabbed them, for the heroes of Kalevala are different than the knights of those battle-books. The monsters are scarier, the magic more other-worldly – as if from a people from a remote place, a people overwhelmed by spirits, who cannot really be relied upon to distinguish reality from a bunch of stories old men tell.
                                    + + +
And now, with the news that the Navajos are dubbing Star Wars, so that they can incorporate into their own rich traditional narrative some piece of the dominant culture’s new tradition, we see the processes of incorporation, renewal, and revitalization happening all at once.
We’re looking at a new kind of traditional narrative. And as we do so, think next about the Navajo translation of Jurassic Park, a narrative that now everybody in our big American (including Navajo) culture knows: A scientist discovers something impossibly ancient, which went extinct a long, long time ago. Somebody who wants to make money off this ancient legacy succeeds in making the impossible happen – bringing the extinct back to life. But doing so causes death and mayhem, because it is the natural order of things that the dead should stay dead.
One awaits a new-media recreation of the Navajo version of this story – for surely, there is one. The new media could certainly resurrect the old oral-formulaic poetry of Bosnia, of the Kaleva district, of Homer. Richard Wagner made an entertainment out of Nibelungenlied, adapting it, taking vast liberties with the text. The new media could do so and YouTube would be just perfect for it. We could click on and see and hear a guslar. If they’d ever do it, a Seneca or Onondaga or Cayuga, Mohawk or Oneida faith keeper could recite the Code of Handsome Lake, and it would be there, recorded, available for re-presentation at any time, and not just reliant on the continued existence of a community of speakers and, more, a community of the knowledgeable, of folks who know idiom, rhythm, technique, and who know a good performance when they hear it. Then tomorrow, YouTube, which like all media is voracious, as voracious as the printing-press, would run something else.
It need not be that immediate. We have a fashion of spending a few seasons marketeering things good and ancient and enduring, like Homer. Brad Pitt performed as Achilles for many weeks, and the Netflix of Troy is still downloaded, and so as a result, many millions still get a glimpse of the Iliad story, and now know what Helen of Troy looked like.
But those performers did not succeed in making that story part of our new tradition. Star Wars is. Jurassic Park is.
The Kalevala songs would be tough to make into movies: they’re not a linear epic, any more than the Inktomi tales and ohunkakan  translated from Sioux constitute a single story-line. Beowulf got its own movie several years after Tolkein’s stories got theirs, but of all the film versions of Beowulf that have been produced, the one with Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother would seem the least likely to endure. Such entertainments won’t ever have much to do with forming our national consciousness. Such entertainments won’t rise to the level of traditional narrative.
So one should expect that, like that tiny minority of Boomers who looked into this stuff, today’s tradition-inclined children shall have to make their living doing something other than celebrating old-style traditional narrative, because we have a new one. It has many shapes, many stories, but it is the narrative of science run amok, and of faraway celestial societies.
The last places on earth that haven’t been touched by our new “traditional” narratives have just been touched. Boomers inspired by Albert Bates Lord and Milman Parry, after having read The Singer of Tales, and after having heard recordings of the very Bosnian guslars that Parry and Lord recorded as the old man droned on and on and incomprehensibly on to the repetitive tune of his one-string gusl, went and did what now may be difficult to do: they carried on that tradition of seeking out, listening to, recording, transcribing, but at least listening to the performances of the people who did what Homer used to do. There are people alive today who went to remote places, witnessed as elders gently mocked the linguistic clumsiness of those few of the younger generation who made the effort to communicate with them, and who transcribed and translated the old-fashioned way, the Elias Lonnrot way, with notebook and pencil, and heard and saw what Parry and Lord had seen, heard a slice of what Magoun had written about – namely, oral-formulaic composition, mainly prayers, religious songs and praise-testimonials. And stories.
I heard the stories.
The people who performed them were among the last on earth who will ever have made them, in that particular language, for basic competence in that language is fading, and it is too much to expect of young people who are barely conversant with a language that they would also be able to master the techniques, the ancient techniques, of oral-formulaic composition. I saw it. I heard it. Now, upstairs in my library, there are my transcripts. There are even a few books, that, like Kalevala, are compilations of narratives. Where the translations were completed, by me or somebody else, I can still manage to hobble along, as my kids do with their facing-page translation of Beowulf. Where my stories or those of others are not translated, I’m lost. The original texts are there, but, at least in my house, the narrative is silent, beyond revival, beyond retrieval, beyond, unlike in the new narrative about science run amok but science withal competent, beyond any culturing from any extract of any insect trapped intact in amber. My traditional narratives will go extinct. They have already.
And now, the Navajo dub of Star Wars. They are cleverly leveraging the new narrative, the new tradition, to revitalize their own. This is a brave act. They are saying, We will not go the way of the Kalevala, to put our culture into amber in the way that the culture of the Kalevala continues to exist, as the collector collected it – not as the actual performances of hand-holding peasant men singing and making up their versions of the ancient stories as they went along, but of just one performance, one time, the way one outsider observed us, once. We, the Star Wars dubbers are saying, we are so grand a culture, so great a language, so huge and distinctive a people, that we can welcome somebody else’s stories into our house.

Extinction, Jurassic Park teaches us, is the way of the world. Not just yet, say the Navajo. Not just yet.

No comments: