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Channeling the Force

The costume is very familiar and was fashioned from $12 worth of golden fabric and fitted with its iconic belt.

Meet C-3PO, the life-sized droid hero, noted for his perfect etiquette and protocol, who has been featured in almost every Star Wars film since the franchise first screened in May 1977.

It took Geri Hongeva, a Navajo woman from Flagstaff, two days to sew the costume in 2018, with the help of her son, who is more experienced in cosplay, the practice of dressing up as a character from a movie, a book or video game.

It is a character she knows well, having been chosen in July 2013 by Deluxe Studios to be the voice of C-3PO in “Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope,” which was dubbed into the Navajo language and has gained international attention for the Navajo tribe’s efforts to preserve its language. She is the only woman to voice the droid in the history of Star Wars, which has been translated into 50 different languages.                                                                  Hongeva first wore the C-3PO costume at the Indigenous Comic Con in Albuquerque in November 2018, where cast members gathered for the five-year anniversary of Navajo Stars Wars.

“It was challenging because I am a Navajo female trying to depict a male droid,” Hongeva explained. “Firstly, I wanted to show the feminine parts of C-3PO, like the corset. Secondly, the iconic Threepio belt had to be distinct and display robotic features. The challenging part was my size. I am a mother of two, 44 years old and not exactly pencil thin. I created the costume to fit me specifically and it definitely fits like a glove.”

Today, the costume is one of 50 objects showcased in “The Force is With Our People” exhibition, which opened in October and will run through May 2020 at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

In addition to the imposing robot figure, the show includes paintings, prints, posters, t-shirts, jewelry, figures, carvings and pottery, fashioned by more than 20 contemporary Native American artists who were influenced by Star Wars.

The focus of the show is to explore the reasons this enduring piece of poplar culture seems to resonate so strongly with Native communities, especially those in the American Southwest.

At the heart of the Star Wars story is the concept of “The Force,” expressed as a mysterious spiritual energy field created by life that binds the galaxy together and grants extraordinary abilities. There are also lessons in respect for the wisdom of elders and the triumph of good spirits over evil powers.

Variations of these concepts are expressed in aspects of Native American cultures.

For Hongeva, Navajo traditions run deep. She grew up in Flagstaff since the age of five, but often spent school breaks and weekends on Black Mesa with her grandparents, helping to herd sheep with other children in her family.

“I never imagined that I would help my tribe create a major motion film like Star Wars to preserve our language and make history,” she said. “Throughout my childhood, my great grandmother always told me, you are going to be someone, you will be an answer to our ancestors’ prayers, to survive. As a young child, she encouraged me and loved me unconditionally, that kind of love never dies. Her spirit is with me every day. She has been my role model and always will be. “

Hongeva was also part of a panel of two women and two men from the Navajo, Yuchi and Chippewa cultures who participated in “Fashioning Identity,” an MNA discussion the afternoon of Nov. 2, that addressed how fashion and cosplay are important parts of self-expression. The panelists shared how they have used style, fashion and costumes to influence their character and gender identity.

“In the panel discussion, I encouraged the young girls in the audience to dream big and outside the borders. Sometimes you have to be the one to break the norm and create it yourself,” she said.

Wearing her costume was daunting, but exciting.

“I enjoy wearing it and people immediately recognize me as C-3PO,” she said. “I have to admit, I was nervous about what the traditional Navajo women might say in my tribe because as a Navajo woman, you should wear a long-sleeved blouse, long skirt, wrapped moccasins and not reveal a lot of skin. If you have seen my photos in C-3PO cosplay, you might think that it’s sexy. I broke two barriers: C-3PO as a woman and C-3PO as Navajo.”

Hongeva has put her skills to work throughout her career, including her fluency in English and Navajo. Her background in marketing, public relations and sales harkens back to her childhood helping to sell and negotiate the price of her grandmother’s rugs at trading posts.

Currently, she works as a senior casino host at Twin Arrows Casino Resort, dealing directly with premium players and other guests, including locals, tourists and business leaders.

“When hiring, we strive to add team members that have great qualities such as integrity, intelligence and energy; and if you have met Geri, she exemplifies these qualities in her position,” said Director of Marketing Ken Johnson, who is Hongeva’s supervisor.

According to a Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise press release, her resume is varied and includes graduating in 2001 with a degree in visual communication from Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication. After graduation, she worked at NAU for eight years, including as a creative director for anthropology assisting to protect sacred sites on the Colorado Plateau.

She also worked for eight years as a media representative for Navajo Parks and Recreation, Navajo Nation Fair and the Navajo Division of Natural Resources representative, where she heavily promoted travel and tourism on the Navajo Nation.

In addition, she had vital roles in coordinating the Monument Valley Balloon Event and the “Skywire” tightrope walk of Nik Wallenda across the Little Colorado River Gorge in 2013.

Hongeva is married to a Navy veteran. Her son is expected to graduate from NAU’s School of Communication this spring; her daughter attended Puente de Hozho, a Navajo language immersion school in Flagstaff, so she can read and write the Navajo language at an intermediate level.

Hongeva also makes time for hobbies, such as photography, hiking, running and riding her motorcycle. She volunteers as a board member for Navajo Hopi Honor Riders, an organization with a mission to remember all fallen warriors and to show appreciation for Native American veterans.

“My father died of Agent Orange when he was only 49 years old; he was my hero,” Hongeva related in a press release. “I was 24. He never declared to be a veteran to people; he was very quiet about it. I spent the last two years of his life taking care of him every day, getting him through chemo, radiation. It has to be the hardest time of my life, to see your father go through the suffering and then letting him go.”

What is the best advice you have ever received?

“‘Respect all prayers, in different languages and all religions,’ from my great-grandmother. She only spoke Navajo and never went to school but she was the wisest person I knew. She taught me to listen closely to a prayer, hear the words, the tone of voice and the message. Be respectful because you don’t know what a particular person is going through, maybe they are hurting really bad, maybe they are very grateful, maybe they are just hungry and happy to just eat. At a young age, I was taught to pray. As kids, we took turns and prayed before dinner or bedtime. To listen to thousands of prayers all my life, I have learned to be grateful and also to be amazed when a prayer is answered by God, the creator.”

What is your favorite movie?

“’Dances with Wolves,’ (1990). I grew up without a television most of my childhood, so when the movie came out, I was 14 years old. It was the first movie I had seen in a theater where Native Americans were depicted as good and peaceful. I loved the storyline, the fact that John Dunbar had a very positive experience with the Lakotas and they accepted him, creating a bond of true friendship and loyalty. I never cared for the old Western films, with Italian actors playing Native Americans, and they were raiding or attacking settlers. After watching ‘Dances with Wolves’ in the theater, I walked out very proud, standing taller and proud to be native.”

Who do you admire?

“Jennifer Lopez. I immediately gravitated to her when she was in the movie, ‘Selena’ (1997). Then, of course, all her hit albums, and her book, ‘True Love,’ which I read. She is a very healthy, strong and intelligent woman, and I admire her talent. After reading her book, I learned more about her personal struggles and how she overcame the obstacles as a mother of two.”

Where is your favorite place to travel?

“Monument Valley and Lake Powell area. The serenity it offers and beauty untouched is very refreshing. My clan is Yé’ii dine’é  Táchii’nii  and we have a clan story that is directly related to the Totem Poles (Yé’ii Bii Chei) in Monument Valley. It is very special to me and every time I visit, I feel home. Thousands of people from all over the world visit every year; we are so fortunate to have this very sacred place on Navajo Nation. I’ve been to France, England, Hawaii and parts of Ireland, but nothing compares to the beauty from Lake Powell to Monument Valley.”

If you had a million dollars to give away, where would it go?

“Toward the Navajo Code Talker Museum and Veterans Center to honor our warriors of WWII. We (the Navajo tribe) do not have many Navajo Code Talkers left, five, I believe. Our warriors saved the United States of America in World War II by using our Navajo language. They need to be recognized and honored for this. We are very proud of them, and I support all Native American veterans across Indian country.” FBN



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