Allison's Book Bag

Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac

Posted on: March 29, 2012

At six-years-old, Kii Yazhi is sent to a mission school. As he struggles with the fear of leaving home, his mom tells him: “To learn the ways of the white people is a good thing. Our Navajo language is sacred and beautiful. Yet all the laws of the United States, these laws we now have to live by, they are in English.” The first six chapters of Code Talker, a historical novel by Joseph Bruchac that is set during the time of World War II, narrates a disturbing tale of how Navajo children like Kii Yazhi (who would become known as Ned Begay) are stripped of their native name, hair, clothes, language, and identity. If any of them are caught speaking their native language even to each other in private, they’re punished by having their mouth rigorously washed with a big bar of brown soap.

In April 1942, a fantastic irony happened. A message from the Navajo tribal chairman is sent around the reservation by shortwave radio, telling them that Navajo volunteers are needed for special war work.The rest of Code Talker is about how sixteen-year-old Ned Begay becomes part of the Marine Corps, braves some of the heaviest part of the war, and sends coded messages to aid in the conflict against Japan. Ned Begay’s experiences changed him and Code Talker will change you.

In contrast to Skeleton Man, Code Talker is much more deeply entrenched in Native American culture. For starters, in Code Talker, Bruchac takes on the persona of a Navajo grandfather telling his grandchildren about his World War II experiences. This allows Bruchac to explain war terms, without being condescending, that might be foreign to readers. As a reader who knows mostly about war through textbooks and movies, I appreciated the natural and clear explanations. Bruchac’s narrative choice also creates a distinct style: “Grandchildren, you asked about this medal of mine. There is much to be said about it. This small piece of medal holds a story that I was not allowed to speak for many winters.”

Another outstanding example of Native American culture is in the use of Navajo language itself. In the preface, the grandfather narrator shares many of the Navajo words for our English words. For example, the word “English” is translated “bilagaanaa”. The word for “United States of America” is “Nihama” and Our Mother: “When we Indians fought on those far off islands, we always kept the thought in our minds that we were defending our Mother, the sacred land that sustains us.” Unfortunately, the whites at the mission school displayed a hostile attitude towards the Navajo language: “Navajo is no good, no use at all! Only English will help you get ahead in this world.”

There are countless other ways that Native American culture shines through Code Talker. Because intercultural communication is the focus of my research paper, I’ll focus on examples of it.

Elementary School

  • As a sign of how much their family love them, the Navajo children dress in their finest clothing and jewelry to attend the mission school. Shortly after the children arrive at school, however, all these items are taken from them and sold to white people.
  • The white teachers expect students to look into their eyes to show attention. This takes time for the Navajo children to process, because Native Americans normally stare as a sign of attack not respect. Every time, I read about different cultures view eye contact, I think about often teachers have demanded a student to look at them. What message has this perhaps sent to some of our English Language Learners?
  • During the events of Code Talker, like the Nazarite of Biblical times, Native Americans would keep their hair long. To them, hair is a sacred thing and so cutting it would bring misfortune. Imagine the shock for the Navajo children when their hair is chopped short to make them “white”.
  • As if their name wasn’t good enough, each Navajo child receives a new name. The whites didn’t realize “biye” meant “son of” and so they translated it to “Begay”. That is apparently why now so many Navajo have the last family of Begay. How important is your family name to you?

High School

  • Even when Ned Begay doesn’t understand something, all he has to do was say “Yes, teacher!” and his white teachers would nod and smile. Sometimes they don’t even ask him to answer the question.
  • Because Ned reads, writes, and studies, teachers tell him, “You are almost as bright as a white child” or “I doubt that your average white student could have said it much better.” They also encourage him to speak up in class, but Ned rarely does because this would have call attention to himself or embarrass students who don’t do so well in school. Again, I think about how often teachers have required a quiet student to participate. What effect does this have on quiet students?
  • A former member of the tribal council, Hosteen Mitchell, talks with Ned about the similarities between Indian beliefs and Roman Catholic beliefs. When Ned’s family becomes Catholic that does not mean they forget the Holy People or the Navajo way. One of those ways includes a ceremony of blessing, which they perform before Ned leaves for the Marines to keep him safe when he goes into danger.
  • During one of their conversations, Hosteen comments, “Well, that Golden Rule and other things he did makes me think maybe Jesus was a Navajo. If any of those Christian white traders behaved the way their Bible tells them to live, they would all go broke.”

Marine Corp

  • When Navajo men go to the Marine Corp boot camp, they don’t have a beard. Even so, they’re expected to put soap on their face every morning and scrape away “an imaginary beard”.
  • The grandfather narrator suggests that it was harder for whites to accept abuse from drill sergeants than for the Navajo. “Being Indians, we were used to having white men shout at us and tell us we were worthless and stupid.”
  • In the white man’s Marine Corps, every Indian receives the same nickname: Chief. One of Ned’s friends finds a way to deal with it. When someone who doesn’t know Sam calls him “Chief,” he answers: “What, Mr. President?” As for Ned, he decides that his white friends don’t mean to insult him and so doesn’t want to hurt their feelings by correcting them.

Although there are tons more examples, I’m going to leave you with one of my favorite passages in Code Talker. Ned Begay has just been asked by another soldier to help him learn to read. This leads him to observe:

“All through Indian school, we had been taught that white men knew everything. That day, for the first time, I realized several things. The first was that the bilagaanaas are not born knowing everything. The second was that in many of the most important ways, white men are no different than Navajos. The third? That no matter who they are, people can always learn from one another.”

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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