JOSEPH BRUCHAC ON THE IMPORTANCE AND IMPACT OF IDENTITY
By: Ashley Gray
In this first of a series of interviews with Wit & Wisdom teacher-writers and the authors whose work is featured in the curriculum, we caught up with award-winning novelist Joseph Bruchac. We asked him four questions about how his novel develops student understanding of American history.
In seventh grade, Wit & Wisdom students study Americans’ experience of World War II. Through the fictional account of Ned Begay, a Navajo teenager called to war in Joseph Bruchac’s Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two, students build knowledge of this era from the unique experience of the protagonist. In this interview, Bruchac talks about what inspired him to write the novel and his thoughts on the story’s essential meaning.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE CODE TALKER?
When I first learned about the Code Talkers — shortly after their amazing story was declassified in 1968 — my
first thought was that more people needed to know about them. And that I wanted to know as much as possible. That led to decades of research which included many meetings with Navajo men who were once Code Talkers. I first imagined this story as a picture book and was in the process of working with a publisher to create such a volume. However, after more than a dozen rewrites, my editor and I concluded it needed to be a novel. This entailed many more revisions and much more research, including enlisting the assistance of Navajo linguists and historians. One of them, museum director Harry Walters, had helped me with an earlier book, Trails of Tears, Paths of Beauty (National Geographic Books), about the Navajo Long Walk and the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Best of all, I was given help by the Navajo Code Talkers Association which reviewed my manuscript.
WHAT DOES BEING A NAVAJO MEAN TO THE PROTAGONIST OF CODE TALKER?
My main character is deeply aware of the importance of his family and his place in the world as a Diné (Navajo Person). I believe it means living a proper and respectful life, a life in which he lives up to those obligations to family, to his culture, and to the land of Dinetah. His knowledge of his language and the healing ceremonies is a big part of that.
HOW DOES CODE TALKER BUILD STUDENTS’ KNOWLEDGE OF THE IMPORTANCE OF CULTURE, ESPECIALLY IN TIMES OF CHALLENGE?
Ned’s identity gives him courage to see beyond the moment, to recognize his place in the larger order of things. It enables him to remain calm when others around him are panicking. It also, through his very Navajo sense of humor, helps him survive trials that might break others.
In various parts of Ned’s story, he literarily lives his Navajo identity and behaves in ways that demonstrate the importance of his culture — such as offering pollen, praying for guidance and protection, and using ceremony to overcome what was then called “shell shock” and is now known as PTSD. His consistent relationship to his Navajo identity, despite the challenges of boarding school and warfare, should help students better understand Ned’s world and its importance to him and his people. Like grandchildren hearing an elder recount a story, Ned invites the reader to share his life through friendly, first-person narration.
WHAT IS THE ESSENTIAL MEANING OF CODE TALKER?
Ned’s story reminds us to never assume that only one way is the right way, to judge that any culture — or language — is inherently superior. Though Ned was told in Indian Boarding School that he must forget his native language and culture, it turned out it was that very language which proved to be of great value to the United States during World War II.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Bruchac is an award-winning author of more than one hundred books for children and adults including Pushing Up the Sky: Seven Narrative American Plays for Children and The First Strawberries: A Cherokee Story.