A Native American Story You’ve Probably Never Heard

November is National American Indian Heritage Month, a perfect time to share a story that you won’t read in any school textbook.

You’ve likely heard about the Navajo Code Talkers, US Marines of Navajo descent who used their native tongue to baffle Japanese code breakers during World War II. Their work is credited with helping end the war years earlier than predicted. Despite their unique skills and heroic efforts, they were subject to racism and discrimination and were treated poorly to put it mildly.

Their work was top secret. Most Americans (including their fellow soldiers) didn’t realize there were native people serving in the military and didn’t know about their significant contributions to the war effort until years later.

Here’s the story you likely haven’t heard.

A chance encounter brought together a photographer and one of these Code Talkers in the mid-seventies.

The Code Talker was a man named Carl Gorman who picked up a hitchhiking photographer near Window Rock, Arizona. They became acquainted and the photographer showed interest in the culture and history of the Code Talkers.

He was invited to a Navajo Code Talkers Association meeting and was welcomed into the group. The photographer began following the Code Talkers to parades and other functions where they appeared, eventually becaming their official association photographer.

That photographer was a Japanese man whose father was a surviving Kamikaze pilot from World War II.

You read that correctly.

The Navajo Code Talkers welcomed to their tight knit community a stranger who descended from the very people they had worked so hard to defeat only a few decades earlier.

Eventually, photographer Kenji Kawano began a new project, photographing Code Talkers in their own environments – in their homes and workplaces.

Some proudly wore their uniforms. Others posed with portraits of their young selves. Some saluted for the camera, a few posed with their spouses. Kenji reached some too late – they were already deceased – so he photographed their families or their military portraits.

Some of these portraits were compiled in a book along with a quote from each man. This is how I learned the story.

I actually picked up the book “Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers” at the Crazy Horse Memorial this summer, thinking that it was just a nice book of photos to peruse on the plane. I had no idea that it would be such a moving experience to learn about the Code Talkers and the unlikely friend who would tell their story.

One of them spoke of how he was captured by U.S. Army soldiers who mistook his Navajo features as Japanese – a common problem for many of the Code Talkers.

Another spoke of how he continued to question why he had to kill and spoke of the psychological impact it had on him.

Another said that he joined up because there were no jobs on the Reservation.

The stories they tell often are only a sentence or two, sometimes a paragraph, making it an easy but significant read.

If you aren’t a reader but enjoy photography and want to know more about this topic, this book is the way to go. You’ll learn a lot and be moved. You’ll also walk away with a number of questions and perhaps even with a new world view. It certainly worked for me.

It gives me hope to think of the kindness the Code Talkers showed this young photographer. They didn’t have to invite him to their meetings or allow him to stick around for pictures. They certainly didn’t have to welcome this son of their one-time enemy into their homes.

Kenji said that it was a bit awkward at first. I imagine this is an understatement. But if this unlikely friendship could develop and flourish, there’s hope for us all. In this divided world we live in today where we have so little tolerance for people who hold different views than us, we can use all the hope we can get.

Read the book if you can. I promise you won’t regret it.

A Public Service Announcement

I interrupt this road trip to share a public service announcement. When you road trip, there is one thing you should always carry with you

A map.

I know, I know. It’s the 21st century. You use the app on your phone to get you around. It may not always give directions that make sense but your phone always gets you there.

That’s super but let me tell you something, friends. There are still places in this country where your phone will not work.

I live in a rural area where my phone works about 95 percent of the time. There are pockets though where a call drops, the music dries up and you can’t get a text through.

On this last road trip, I went for miles and miles without service in parts of West Virginia and Maryland. You see, I had stopped to take a picture somewhere and accidentally closed the maps app. When I opened it again, there was no signal and therefore no directions.

I knew I needed to continue on this road for a while so I soldiered on thinking that I would soon regain service. And then I started looking for a McDonalds or some kind of business that would offer free WiFi. But you don’t see a lot of free WiFi in sparsely populated mountainous areas where even the radio signal has stopped working.

Luckily, I had my trusty atlas and the ability to read and direct myself.

Let me tell you something kids – I would’ve been in trouble without it!

Technology is great but we need to be prepared to think for ourselves and to direct ourselves when necessary. If you’re going to be a serious road tripper, always keep that atlas handy. You never know when you might need it!

Lessons From Crazy Horse

Living near a college town has its advantages. One is that there’s usually a concert, lecture or some other event going on. Last week, the university’s Multicultural Center hosted author William Matson and Crazy Horse Family Elder Floyd Clown Sr. for a 90 minute talk.

They were here to discuss and sign their book “Crazy Horse: The Lakota Warrior’s Life and Legacy” which is based on the family’s oral history.

I learned so much from this talk that I don’t even know where to begin.

Mr. Clown spoke a lot about truth, honor and respect. He spoke of the assassination of Crazy Horse and how Crazy Horse had a vision that showed his death fifteen months before it occurred. He spoke of how his family lived in fear and actually kept their connection to the Lakota warrior secret for 124 years.

Grandfather is a term of reverence for an elder male family member. He talked about how his grandfather led by example and encouraged all to do the same by treating others with respect and by walking gently on this earth. In other words, he treated the earth and other people with kindness and honesty.

He also said that all are equal under the eyes of their creator. There is no skin color- just a red heart.

What a beautiful way to express an idea that so many struggle to understand or accept.

I now own a signed copy of the book and look forward to reading their stories. This was their 259th talk about this book but it seemed fresh and they kept me engaged for the full ninety minutes. My only regret is that it didn’t last longer.

Pick up the book or go see them if you have a chance.

Handyman’s Book

This fun little number popped up while antiquing Friday. Since I had never seen one in real life and since it was just $8, it clearly had to come home with me!

Isn’t the cover great? It’s a 1957 reprint of a 1951 guide to everything you need to know about tools and household handy work.

Much of it remains relevant today. Some of it is quite sexist. I love the graphics but am a little annoyed by how adoring she looks here.

Nonetheless, I look forward to studying it a little more closely. It’s well organized, illustrated and easy to follow.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll learn something useful!

I Miss Those Days

college days

I commuted to Ohio University and often found myself with time to kill between classes. If the weather was good, this is where you could find me. Countless hours were spent sitting on this sunny hillside plowing through centuries of good books as I pursued my degree in English.

I miss those days. 

It was wonderful having nowhere to be but right here, sitting in the grass with a book in my hands. It was here that I read my first Ian Fleming book as part of a film noir class. It was here that I developed an appreciation for Indian literature and it was here that Jane Austin came to life.

I suppose I could go sit there with a book someday but I’m guessing you really can’t go home again. I don’t belong there anymore. But the memory – ah, the memory of the smell of fresh cut grass, the sun beating down, the feel of a book in my hands –  it’s the best memory of my college career.

 

Not All Who Wander

wander

And NEVER forget it.

In case you’re curious about the origins of this phrase, you can thank writer J.R.R. Tolkien. Here’s the full text.

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

It Doesn’t Matter Which Way You Go

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland