Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two

by Joseph Bruchac
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Last Updated on November 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 845

Heroism in Multiple Forms

War stories often cast heroes as warriors who fight bravely on the battlefield, engaging in physical fights that test their strength and endurance. Joseph Bruchac includes such figures in his novel about World War II, but the real heroes are men—and some women—who labor in obscurity but nevertheless play crucial roles in the Allies’ ultimate victory over the Axis powers. Through a fictionalized account of the Diné or Navajo “code talkers” in the US Marines, Bruchac offers a broad concept of heroism that includes the contributions that Native Americans make in waging and winning the war.

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One primary way that Bruchac supports this expansive idea of the hero concept is by explaining a side of warfare that often receives little attention: the crucial behind-the-scenes and intelligence efforts on which the military depends for communication. Bruchac notes that one reason the heroes of the communication system can’t even be acknowledged, much less celebrated, at the time is the secrecy essential to effective intelligence communication. Some four hundred Navajo people create and use an intricate code based on their native language that enables the US military to communicate, especially in the Pacific. It is so effective that the enemy never cracks it.

Beyond the select few who are the actual code talkers, however, Bruchac also encourages the reader to understand the heroism necessary for Navajo people to continue using their language and teaching it to their children. They steadfastly continue their cultural and linguistic tradition in an era when many Native American children are sent to boarding schools and forbidden to speak their own languages. In addition, he shows the heroism of Native American people in other military roles in the military, including other marines such as Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian who helps win the battle and raise the flag at Iwo Jima.

Racism and Resistance in Children’s Education and Socialization

In this young adult novel, the protagonist is called Ned Begay for much of his life, but he originally has a different name. The author focuses on one individual’s experience growing up Navajo in the 1920s and 1930s to show how many Southwestern Native American children are educated at that time. Education is one aspect of racist theories and practices that promote “assimilation”: the idea that white, European American culture is dominant and that all other people have to adjust to it.

The beginning of the novel traces Ned’s childhood from age six, when he leaves his family home to be educated in a boarding school in Gallup, New Mexico. One of the main rules forbids children to speak Navajo and requires them to speak only English. In addition, when they arrive at the schools, they are given new names, often based on their father’s name; that is when Kii Yázhí becomes Ned Begay. They are also stripped of their distinctive Navajo clothing and accessories, including handmade jewelry and belts, and required to wear uniform-like, Western-style clothing. Navajo men typically wear long hair, but boys’ hair is cut short immediately upon arriving, and they are not allowed to let their hair grow back. Corporal punishment is often used to enforce the rules. Ned recalls his sadness in realizing the school’s goal:

Everything . . . that was Indian had to be forgotten.

Nevertheless, the children do not—and many find they cannot—forget who they are. These discriminatory practices do not succeed in eradicating Navajo culture or language. Despite their fear of being beaten again, the children secretly continue to converse in Navajo and exchange stories and songs. Ned’s character is portrayed as one of those “determined never to forget” his language. In this way, Bruchac emphasizes the contradictory effects of harsh policies. The determination that Ned maintains later contributes to his ability to become a good marine and use his knowledge to help his country.

The Relationship Between Language and Culture

Ned mentions numerous times that cultural beliefs shared among the code specialists are part of what help them bond as a group and perform effectively in wartime conditions. These statements reflect the idea that language cannot be separated from culture. The code works in part because it is based on shared ideas that penetrate the language, not a random set of words that are literally translated from English.

The Navajo men who become marines and develop the code project are not all from the same place, and they do not know each other before they join up. There are multiple distinctions among their experiences growing up Navajo, in part because many of them have attended boarding school.

Ned does not claim that he is exceptional in his abilities or unique in maintaining faith. He says that the Navajos’ common beliefs give them a shared set of ideas and values on which to build. During his service, Ned carries corn pollen that he uses for a daily ritual, aiding him in staying connected to the idea of his home and people. The belief in protection by Father Sky sustains him as they cross the vast Pacific.

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