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Author says code talkers a `great irony' of American history

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.mlive.com/entertainment/kzgazette/index.ssf?/base/features-3/117 47964263960.xml&coll=7 Author says code talkers a `great irony of American history
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 27, 2007

      Author says code talkers a `great irony' of American history

      Sunday, March 25, 2007

      By Thea Lapham
      Special to the Gazette

      Imagine being torn from your family, punished for speaking your native
      language and being forced to adopt a completely foreign way of life -- then
      being asked to create a code to preserve the freedom of the very country
      that took yours away.

      For more than 380 Native Americans, that's what happened. It haunted author
      Joseph Bruchac for more than two decades before he wrote "Code Talkers: A
      Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War II" (2005, Dial Books).

      In his young-adult novel, Bruchac, who will speak about his work Tuesday at
      the Air Zoo and the Kalamazoo Public Library, tells the fictional story of
      16-year-old Native American Ned Begay. Caught in a nonfictional crossfire
      of words, during a time when thousands of Native American children were
      stripped of their language and forced to speak English, Ned later uses
      these banned words to help create a unique and indecipherable code for
      transmitting and receiving military messages.

      "I've long been interested in the way American history has treated native
      people," said Bruchac, a descendant of the Abenaki tribe, during a phone
      interview from his home in upstate New York. "I consider it a great irony
      that the language the government thought was useless turned out to be very
      worthwhile. The whole story of the code talkers, to me, is an example of
      how we need to respect other cultures and traditions and never assume that
      any culture is superior to another."

      Living in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, Bruchac remains close
      to the land of his Native American ancestors. The Abenaki tribe extends
      throughout northern New England and southern Canada and to the Adirondacks
      in New York.

      "Another reason I was interested in writing about the Navajo code talkers
      is that I've met a number of these men," Bruchac said. "They were very
      helpful to me in the writing of this book."

      The men were forbidden to speak about the code until the late 1960s because
      of its continued use throughout the Korean and Vietnam wars, but they were
      more than willing to talk to Bruchac recently. "Finally, they could share
      their stories," he said.

      Bruchac said the Native American response to the book has been extremely
      positive because it tells the story from a Native point of view "and shows
      our culture and traditions can play a role in the modern world and don't
      have to be left behind."

      The biggest challenge for Bruchac was keeping the "voice" of his novel's
      characters true to themselves.

      "To write it from a Navajo perspective when I'm not a Navajo was a big
      risk," he said. "Fortunately, many Navajo people who read the book prior to
      publication said they thought I had the voice right and that I told the
      story respectfully. ...

      "People often write about others without really knowing them. They base
      everything on their own imaginations and presumptions. That's why it's so
      important to me that I stay as true as possible to whatever culture I'm
      writing about."

      Asked if he'd like to see "Code Talkers" as a classroom textbook, Bruchac
      said: "It has already been used in a number of schools. In fact, the
      Scholastic Book Club has chosen it as one of its book-club selections,
      which means they do a very large printing in a less-expensive edition made
      available to schools."

      Bruchac has written more than 120 books, including 14 collections of
      traditional stories and four books of poetry.

      He has a bachelor's degree from Cornell University, a master's degree in
      literature and creative writing from Syracuse University and a doctorate in
      comparative literature from the Union Institute of Ohio.

      "I write because I feel these are stories that need to be heard," he said.
      "When you write a book, you write it for yourself. But you also write it
      for an imaginary audience. In my case, it's an audience of both American
      Indians and non-American Indians."

      "Code Talkers" also is about honoring all of those who served in the

      "I think it's something important for us to do," Bruchac said. "Whatever
      our political convictions, we have to honor those people who have risked
      their lives and their safety for our benefit."

      ©2007 Kalamazoo
      © 2007 Michigan Live. All Rights Reserved.
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