Young Adults Books

NAVAJO CODE TALKERS, Nathan Aaseng, Walker and Company, 435 Hudson St., N.Y., NY 10014, (800) AT-WALKER, (212) 307-1764 FAX. Simultaneously published by Thomas Allen and Son, Ltd., Markham, Ontario, Canada. 1992, 114 pages, Index, bibliography, photo illustrations, map. Hardcover, $14.95. 0-8027-8182-9

Aaseng, a microbiologist, has written more than 90 books for young people, most of them on scientific or mathematical subjects. There is a mathematical aspect to most codes, but not to this one. Still, most readers will be surprised (as I was) to realize that most military info that has to be broadcast and received rapidly often under battlefield conditions has no equivalents in the Navajo language, or only talk-arounds that would be too lengthy and ambiguous. There are other criteria of military broadcast codes that didn't fit the language-as-spoken: it must be clear and unambiguous over radios that are not themselves clear or easy to hear, and critical info must be so sharply differentiated that even unclear hearings with parts of messages inaudible do not cause confusion. This governs the choice of word-sounds that should be used in the oral codes for broadcast. I had vaguely thought, prior to reading this, that the code-talkers just talked Navajo to each other, and the Japanese couldn't understand the difficult language as they intercepted the communications. Not so.

The result of the military communications necessities was that the Navajo Marine code-talker recruits themselves devised a whole set of extensions of their language that in fact form the codes. They reduced their ideas to memorizable lists. They conducted self-teaching, and teaching of new code-talker recruits. Aasen's book focuses first on recruitment of volunteers, training, and attempting to build trust to actually use the code-talkers among the military hierarchy, most of whom were skeptical of their worth.

In the Pacific war, fought on jungle-covered islands, the code-talkers faced another kind of peril: being shot by their own side as Japanese soldiers, whom they often physically resembled (or anyway in the eyes of blonde freckle-faced Midwest Marine soldiers and officers). In non-battle situations, the code-talkers reported that they got along well with the Marines.

Aasen mentions Dinè traditions of fear of the after-death chindi or hostile ghost of the dead as one of the greatest difficulties the code-talkers faced in the horrendous Pacific island war. He notes that "A key source of their ability to stay calm in the midst of terror and anxiety [of deadly battles, as well as swarming chindi] was the Navajos' religious beliefs...

".The Enemy Way ceremony [which they did not have to be present at] was immensely reassuring to them....In May, 1944, relatives on the reservation held a combined Enemy Way rite for 150 Navajos stationed in the Pacific. For this particular ceremony, photographs of the soldiers were gathered and laid out in front of the Enemy Way singer. Christian Navajos were invited to add their own prayers and songs to the traditional ceremony, which went on all night. The Navajo community tried to contribute in other ways to the safe return of its soldiers. Throughout the war, many planted prayer feathers, decorated with turquoise, to help protect the servicemen."

Aasen has researched this book mainly from military records, press clippings, and other written sources, supplemented with occasional interviews of such contacts as he was able to find, some 50 years later, so there is an impersonal quality that might have been lessened if he had been able to find a code-talker as co-author, or included more personal memoirs. Nevertheless this is a fascinating book that Native youths, in particular, will find interesting reading. Language teachers might want to read it too, then think of how you and your students might devise such linguistic "codes" to meet the military communications conditions Aasen describes. This book was a 1992 Junior Literary Guild selection. Reviewed by Paula Giese

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Thursday, April 18, 1996 - 6:43:04 AM