(CNN) — Andy Harvey was reading the Navajo Times one day when he spotted a casting call for the Disney Pixar film “Finding Nemo.”
His children thought he would be a shoo-in, not because he has acting experience but because he is fluent in Navajo, the language of his people.
“Finding Nemo” is the second film to be dubbed in Navajo, the indigenous language spoken by members of the Navajo Nation. It debuted Friday in select theaters in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, where it will be shown free.
Utahns can see the film at the Gateway in Salt Lake City through March 24. Click here for showtimes and details. According to their website, The Gateway is one of only nine locations to host showings of the special event.
The voice roles were performed by members of the Navajo nation like Harvey, who have no professional acting experience. They worked with Navajo linguists alongside Rick Dempsey, senior vice president of Disney Character Voices to bring the roles to the big screen.
The film also features an original song by Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump, who is not native, sung in Navajo.
A joint effort between the Navajo Nation Museum and The Walt Disney Studios, the translation has been in the works for more than a year, said Navajo Nation Museum Director Manuelito Wheeler. Known in Navajo as Nemo Hádéést’į́į́’, it’s part of a larger cultural initiative to keep the native language alive through film, following the success of the 2013 translation of “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.”
“We are at a tipping point with our language. We have enough fluent speakers now that we need to use [them] to help save our language,” he said.
Using film and pop culture to connect the younger generation to their language “is a huge leap forward in getting the awareness out there and getting kids interested,” he said.
Like all the indigenous languages of North America, Navajo suffered a drastic decline in the number of speakers after the arrival of European settlers. Once war and disease decimated the population, remaining members lost their language through cultural assimilation.
The trend began to reverse in the 20th century because of bilingual programs in schools for children and adults. Navajo was the only indigenous language to experience such an upturn, becoming a model for other indigenous people, according to the UCLA Language Materials Project. The number of Navajo speakers has fluctuated over the years from 148,530 in 1990 to 169,369 in 2011 to 164,363 in 2014, according to statistics from the U.S. Census.
Harvey, who lives in the Navajo community of Mitten Rock, New Mexico, learned the language from his parents. The single father of two sons and a daughter, he speaks it in the home around his children, but they are not as fluent as he.
At his children’s urging the family jumped in the car in December 2014 and drove two hours from Mitten Rock to audition at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona. He auditioned for the small role of Bruce the great white shark but didn’t get it. However, he received a callback a few weeks later asking him to read for another role.
The family drove another 2 miles to Gallup, New Mexico, where Harvey read the role of Bubbles. He returned home thinking he would hear back in a few weeks. Much to his surprise, he got a phone call the same day, moments after stepping into his home.
They wanted him to come back and read for the lead role of Marlin, Nemo’s worrisome father.
“I said to them, ‘I just took my boots off,’ ” he recalled. “They said ‘you better come if you want the lead role.’ ”
So he packed up the family again and made the two-hour drive. It paid off with the lead, and his children were thrilled.
“They put their fists to their mouth and said ‘oh my god dad, oh my god,’ ” he said. “My daughter was so excited. I thanked their grandparents because without them I wouldn’t be speaking Navajo.”
Harvey and his children, now ages 17, 16 and 7, visited Burbank, California, in July 2015. His daughter, Giana, also has a role as one of the baby turtles.
“It was a good feeling. It was awesome. We had fun making it,” he said. “It will help the elders who watch movies understand and it will help the Navajo kids understand the culture. We went to the premiere in Albuquerque last Friday. It was totally awesome. It was great to meet everybody.”
Mylo Fowler, who plays Crush, said films are crucial to getting a children interested in their heritage, whether they are Navajo or from another native tribe.
“It is needed not only among the Navajo people, but all languages that are slowly going away. And when the language goes, so does the culture and heritage.”
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