Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Code Talker

Joseph Bruchac
Speak, 2005, 231 pp., $7.99
ISBN: 0-14-240596-5

Forced to leave home and attend a government-run boarding school for Navajo children, Ned Begay confronts prejudice for the first time in his young life. Shortly after arriving at the school, he and his classmates are made to cut their hair and exchange their traditional clothing for a standard school uniform. Even more, they are forbidden to use their native language, a punishable offense for which a student might be beaten, or have his mouth washed with soap. During the time Ned spends at the school he excels as a student, and earns praise from his teachers, who regard his work as rivaling that of an "average white student". Yet while Ned appears to constitute a model case of assimilation on the surface, he continues to speak Navajo with other students, albeit in secret, a result of his desire to preserve his identify, as well as his ties to his culture and family.

Although he is given an opportunity to continue his studies at the high school level, a rarity for Native American children, World War II disrupts Ned's education. Upon turning sixteen, he, like other Navajo men, enlists in the Marine Corps, where he is surprised to discover that the very government that once sought to exterminate his language has now recognized value in it. Faced with a need to send and receive commands in the field, and knowing that Japanese interpreters were likely to be monitoring the airwaves, the military recruits bilingual Navajos and entrusts them with the responsibility of using their native language to develop an impenetrable code. They do so, and play an integral role in contributing to the success the military experiences in the Pacific Theater. Indeed, the code talkers were active in several key battles, including those that took place at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Yet because the role they played in the war remains classified as top secret, they are prohibited from talking about their contributions for nearly thirty years. Moreover, upon returning home, they discover that while they have the opportunity to pursue an education under the G.I. Bill, they were not allowed to build or buy homes, a privilege that was extended to white soldiers. Nor was this the only injustice done them. As Ned explains:

As far as I know, not one Navajo code talker was ever raised above the rank of corporal, just as none of us were ever given any kind of official recognition or honor from the time we enlisted until the surrender of Japan. In fact, most of us never even got to wear one of those dress blue uniforms like that first one I saw on the Marine Corps recruitment poster. We were kept invisible. It was partially because our duty was kept such a secret from so many. But I think it was also because we were Indians in what was still, even in the Marines, a white man's world. It was easy to forget Indians. (p. 87)
In the late 1990s I had the opportunity to teach at a high school in Tuba City, a small town located on the Western Navajo Reservation. Driving home after work each evening, I passed a billboard for a Navajo Code Talker exhibit. Intrigued by an aspect of American history about which I knew very little, and which had never been addressed in the high school history classes that I took, I decided to visit the exhibit one weekend. After driving for approximately one hour I pulled off the highway in Kayenta and into a parking lot for a Burger King restaurant. Needless to say, I was surprised to discover that the exhibit, which consisted of various items soldiers brought home following the war, was housed inside a small display case located inside the restaurant. I recall thinking that this was an apt metaphor for a culture that has, as Bruchac's narrator suggests, remained largely invisible to white Americans. For that reason alone Code Talker, which, along with Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, represents of the few young adult novels I know of that gives voice to a Native American protagonist, and which is also written by a Native American author, is important.

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