Joseph Bruchac shares the story behind his story …
One of the best kept secrets of World War Two was not a rocket or a bomb, but a code, one so closely guarded by the deeply honorable men who created and used it, that it was not revealed to the public until 1969. In fact it was used in the Korean and Vietnam wars and not declassified until new computer technology finally proved an alternative as good as or better than Navajo code.
The Navajo men who created the code used their own Dine language, a language that had until then been little studied by linguists and was so complex that only Navajos themselves could speak it properly. They were all recruited at some point between December of 1941 and January of 1942 by the United States Marines for that very task. American Indian soldiers from other tribes, including Cherokee and Choctaws had been used as code talkers in World War I and Comanches were already being used earlier in 1941 in the European war by the Army. So, using Native American Indian languages to send messages was not a new thing. However, no code was better or more impossible to break that that of the Navajos. They were not just speaking in Navajo; they had created a whole dictionary of alternate words, such as the Navajo word “Nihima’” or “Our Mother” to stand for the United States. They also could spell out words, using the Navajo word “Shush” or Bear to stand for B with several alternate words for the vowels and most commonly used letters. Plus, they were speaking, not writing those Navajo words, in a tongue that is hard for an English speaker to pronounce or understand.
Their story is one of the great ironies of American history, for all of them were products of the American Indian Boarding school system which had as one of its central aims the eradication of all traditional Native languages and cultural practices in the belief that “Indians” could not survive unless they were “civilized” and left their past behind. The objective of such schools as the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania and the Rehobath Mission School where many Navajos went was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” (Thus, all the Navajos accepted as code talkers were extremely fluent in English.) But now those same Navajos were being asked by the country that had banned their language to use it for the good of the American nation. It is a measure of their resilience and their patriotism that all who were asked were quick to accept that challenge.
These Navajo marines became known as “code talkers.” They would see action in the hottest theaters of war in the Pacific, from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima and Okinawa and their code would be the only secure means of sending the long distance messages needed for American success.
The problem that the code talkers solved for the United States in its war with the Empire of Japan was that the only communication America and its allies had to span the vast expanse of the Pacific was radio—and those radio waves could be picked up by anyone with a receiver. Thus, the enemy always could listen in and though codes were used, the Japanese were adept code breakers and until the advent of the Navajo code talkers, there was no unbreakable code.
In a sense, you could say that the message of the code talkers, beyond their role in World War Two, was that no one person or culture should ever be singled out as irrelevant or unworthy. Who knows what future challenge they might answer? We all have two ears so that we can hear more than one side of any story. That is certainly something I have come to believe in my own life as a writer, a storyteller, and a teacher.
My novel about them, Code Talker, came out in 2005 after more than 20 years of interest in their story and a great deal of research—including contact with numerous code talkers and the review of my manuscript by the Navajo Code Talkers Association. I started it as a picture book and after ten rewrites it began to run into a novel.
Let me state emphatically that It has no relationship to the overdramatized and highly inaccurate film Windtalkers that appeared in 2002 and was mostly a vehicle for Nicholas Cage—whose job included teaching a nervous Navajo how to be brave. Among other things, Windtalkers put forth the nasty fiction that every Navajo had a Marine guard assigned to kill him if it looked as if he was being captured by the enemy. Quite apart from the illegality of such a supposed duty, the real fact is that every Navajo eventually was given a Marine guard to protect him from other American servicemen who kept mistaking the small, brown-skinned Navajo for Japanese infiltrators in American uniforms and made numerous attempts to capture of kill them.
There’s another irony I need to mention. In 2011, Code Talker was the winner of the Arizona OneBook award. It meant not only that it was read in schools and libraries throughout the state, but also that I was brought to the state to do a book tour. During that visit I did both public presentations and programs in high schools and middle schools, many of them with large populations of Navajo and other Native American students. A great many of whom were hearing for the first time the story of how an indigenous language and the resourceful men who had continued to speak it against tremendous odds made contributions of incredible importance to the same nation that had attempted through legislation and “re-education” (of the sort we might associate with dictatorial regimes) to wipe out that language. I was also honored to share with stage with some of those very men, now in their eighties and nineties, who described, with characteristic modesty, what it was like to be a Navajo code talker during some of the deadliest fighting in the war.
They also displayed the sense of humor that I included in my telling of their story. (And I should mention here that real American Indians are far from the stoic and grim caricatures that still grace the movie screens. Finding laughter in the face of difficulty and using teasing as a way of reminding folks not to feel too self-important is an essential part of Native life.) For example, as Sam Holiday related the story (almost word for word as I’d told it on page 145 of Code Talker) of how when he was under fire in a foxhole on Saipan there was suddenly a loud splat and Danny Akee, the guy in the foxhole with him yelled “I’ve been hit.” But it turned out that happened was a big frog had jumped into the hole and landed on Danny’s helmet.
Sam was sitting next to me on our panel and every time he told that story and came to the “Splat!” part he whomped me hard in the shoulder. Man, that old Navajo marine could still pack a punch. After one program, a woman who had been way in the back came up to me and said, “You all seemed to be having a good time up there, but why were the Code Talkers beating you up?”
But I mentioned that there was an irony about my being invited to Arizona and it is this—just a few weeks ago, along with other American Indian and Hispanic writers, my work was banned for use in the schools in a 4-1 vote by the Tucson Unified School Board in line with a recent state of Arizona mandate to eliminate “Mexican American studies” in order to better concentrate on the European heritage that is the true basis of American civilization.
There are those in Arizona, it seems, who still need to learn how to listen.
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