FARMINGTON — If you are going to play Han Solo, you better take it seriously — which is kind of hard for Navajo comedian James Junes.

Junes, from Farmington, is known on the Navajo Nation for his wisecracks about Native American culture and way of life. He is part of the Navajo comedy duo "James and Ernie," and also for his role in the the Native American comedy troupe "49 Laughs."

Now, though, Junes will have to consider incorporating a Han Solo-impression into his routine.

Junes was selected in early May to be the voice for the gallant Mr. Solo in Navajo-dubbed version of the 1977 classic "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope."

"He is like the space-age version of John Wayne," Junes said.

Junes' character is the stoic space captain with a rebel streak. He often is accompanied by his Wookiee sidekick, Chewbacca, and eventually he has a sizzling romance with the double-bunned Princess Leia.

In the film series, Han Solo is played by actor Harrison Ford.

"I was freaking out," Junes said, noting that he found out about two weeks ago that he might get the part.

The casting director had Junes drive from Farmington in mid-May to a Gallup recording studio owned by Knifewing Productions.

Only when he arrived at the studio did Junes find out that the casting director chose him. The next day, he began recording — which lasted about 10 hours.

"It was like a tongue twister from hell," Junes said, explaining that he does not read Navajo, only speaks it. "It was like Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers...but in Navajo."

The same panel of fluent Navajo speakers that initially translated the entire script helped Junes to recite it by first reading it off to him. He then read it back.

"I felt like I couldn't release my own talent because I was trying to be Harrison Ford," said Junes, who added that he had to talk, yell and grunt like Ford.
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Augusta Liddic The Daily Times (Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times)
"I do comedy. I felt very awkward."

He had to make sure that it timed well with the film, had to make sure he sounded like he meant it, and that he had a perfect Navajo accent. It was tough, he said, sometimes pushing him to the point where he threw down his headphones in frustration.

"It was almost like for the people," James said. "It was my own little battle."

In part, the Navajo-dubbed version is an effort by the Navajo Nation to preserve the Navajo language, Din .

The Navajo Nation Museum and the Navajo Nation Department of Parks and Recreation initially got the project going to encourage people to learn or maintain their knowledge of Navajo.

"Youth around the world have been inspired by the theme of Star Wars that every individual has the power within them to become a hero," said Lucasfilm spokeswoman Lynne Hale in a previous phone interview with The Daily Times. "We are thrilled that the youth of the Navajo Nation will now see the film in their native tongue."

Lucasfilm is the production company of George Lucas, the director and producer of all the Star Wars films.

The film will be the first major picture to be dubbed in the Navajo language. Several other Navajo-speakers also were cast to voice over for the parts of Darth Vader, Princess Leia, C-3P0, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Grand Moff Tarkin.

All of the voice actors recorded their parts at different times, so they did not meet each other. The actors are from across the Navajo Nation, some from New Mexico and others from Arizona.

They all auditioned in early May in Window Rock, Ariz., the Navajo Nation capital.

"In my wildest dreams, I never thought anyone would say, 'Let's do this in Navajo,'" said Junes, who said he used to get teased for speaking his native language.

Though it still is one of the most widely spoken Native American languages in the United States, it still is slowly losing speakers.

The Navajo Nation has estimated that tens of thousands of tribe members still speak the language, though it increasingly is investing more in the teaching of it to Navajo youth and adults.

Junes and his wife, Rose Junes, speak the language on a regular basis, and hope their four children will be able to carry the language forward.

"The Navajo language is not an easy language," said Rose Junes, who added that she was very proud of her husband for going the extra mile to preserve it.

The film is expected to premiere July 4 at the Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock, Ariz., with other showings following in area theaters. The dates for following showings have yet to be announced.

Junes and his wife cannot wait to watch it.

"I had the king of the king of all lines — 'May the force be with you,'" Junes said.

Jenny Kane covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and jkane@daily-times.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jenny_Kane