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Friday, June 19, 2015

Way of the Navajo and The People

Art gallery, Sedona
Back in March I attended the Tucson Festival of Books, which was an awesome experience, but I also took advantage and spent some research time at the University of Arizona library. I wanted to learn more about the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII fame. They're of fame now, but at the time, what they did was top secret, and it wasn't until 1962 that their work was partially declassified.

While those on the Eastern Front were working to try to crack the infamous Enigma machine, in the Pacific Theater the code creators, "Had two arms, two legs, a helmet and an M1 rifle." It also is an interesting story because Navajos, or Dine as they are referred to, were not allowed to vote in any of the Four Corners states until after the war, and in Utah, not until 1953. These are men who fought for the United States, and in some cases, died, yet didn't have the ability to elect the men and women who would put them in harm's way.
Navajo rug store, Sedona

I listened to the audio recordings of the Code Talkers and how they strung together words for objects there was no Navajo word for. Bombs were translated to eggs, and bombers were buzzards. Cabbage eaters were those people of German, Russian or Eastern European countries. It doesn't take a stroke of genius to discover who they were talking about in WWII as "mustache sniffer."

One very dignified ceremony at the White House had a member of the Joint Chiefs trying to speak Navajo to some of the remaining 29 original Code Talkers, who stood stoically while the famous Washington dignitary told them, instead of a greeting and welcome, "give back the sheep." I roared when I heard this in the library, and was duly noticed by the reference librarian, and used this in my book.

I was lucky to find a couple of writer friends who had lived in and around the Navajo reservation, and we sat around the dinner tables and told stories, much like the ancient Navajo did by campfire. I learned many things, about the Navajo constellations and how the condition of the moon was worshiped on a monthly basis. Certain stories were told during, for instance, the Hunter or Warrior Moon, which is in the month of October. As a storyteller myself, this kind of oral information passed down from generation to generation and only recently reduced to writing was fascinating.

One of my friends asked me why I was drawn to write this book about this place I have never lived, but admit to enjoying when I visit. I was struck with how my Navy SEAL would see the desert and the barren but colorful desert landscape of Iraq and compare it to the home of his People, and how, unlike many of his other Teammates, he somehow didn't feel so out of place as they did.

Here's an excerpt of what I'm talking about from SEAL's Code. My hero, Danny, is remarking how the little 4 year old Iraqi boy, Ali, in the midst of the war, still plays with discarded things, as he did when he was young. Hope you can enjoy my short journey:

Later that day, he could read in the boy’s dark eyes the damage from seeing carnage and horrors of war. Yet, he watched as, incredibly, the youngster played with colored rocks and shell casings he found. He would pile them up, sorting by color and size. He began making necklaces from strips of string and leather and colored glass from broken bottles. He made pretend medals with bits of wire, lanyards, guns, and knives small enough for the boy’s tiny hands.
Yazen had killed a goat and dried and stored the meat, hanging the intestines in the sun on one of the bleachers in a haphazard manner to avoid interest from eyes above. Danny noted how, like his ancestors, this former military man was using every part of the animal, even using the goat hooves as blades on a trowel for digging small caches under the soil, or using their sharp edge to sand and whittle wood for stakes.
Kyle spoke to him as he watched the father and son work on stitching together two stiff pieces of goat hide. “Most of these men, even the generals, are only one generation from the desert bands who traveled like Bedouins, herding their food behind them. Very skilled guerilla fighters, if their will is strong. Their strength is in adapting to the harsh environment and completely living off the grid, off the land of their ancestors.”
Danny completely understood and felt a strange kinship. Two generations ago, his People lived in mud and animal skin hogans, or out in the high desert, and not in houses or even the luxury of mobile homes like today.
He fashioned the boy a slingshot made from pieces of a discarded inner tube from a burned-out military van and goat intestines he found drying. He sat one long afternoon and showed the boy how to use it, all the while under the watchful eye of his father, who seemed to have lost the capacity to smile. Danny instructed young Ali the right size and shape of pebbles to use for different trajectories, and how to pull it out of his clothes quickly without making a sound.
Heard Museum, Phoenix

While most of the men seemed more relaxed in the daytime, Danny felt more comfortable at night. His eyesight was well suited for the dark, and he used a single scope goggle he’d crafted so he could rely on his own eyesight, but have the use of the night-vision resolution when he needed it.
This land reminded him of the land of the Four Corners back home. He’d roamed the desert floor with his grandfather, using the moonlight as their guide, listening to small animals, snakes, and sometimes night birds. They’d sometimes sleep out there for a week.
Heard Museum, Phoenix
The smell of the soil in Iraq was not the same. It didn’t have the sweet smell of adobe soil of his homeland when wet. But the texture of the sand when the night wind blew reminded him exactly of what it was like sleeping out on the desert floor with the stars so thick he imagined them to be a wooly blanket that kept him warm at night. He could remember how their brightness almost hurt his eyes as a child.

Danny showed Ali shapes in the night sky, using a small penlight to demonstrate drawing these shapes in the sand with a pointed stick they’d whittled together. There was a coyotealthough not the same stars he saw in the Southwesta bear, a snake, and jackrabbit, something Ali could not understand. When Danny tried to explain the long ears and powerful hind legs of the jackrabbit, Ali kept insisting it was a goat.

What about you? Do you like to learn things about a people or culture when you read romance books? Is that part of the entertainment for you? How important is the setting and background to your favorite stories?

Sharon Hamilton
Life is one fool thing after another.
Love is two fool things after each other.


julie beasley said...

I love to know about the past and future. What they wore . Their manners and I love the different customs. It gives us more insight into the characters we are going to fall in love with

Karen Henderson said...

I love to learn about history
If we don't learn from the past we are doomed in the future to repeat our mistakes

Judy Baker said...

Research is one of my favorite things to do. While in Tennessee, I went to a Cherokee museum to learn more about their culture for my book Spirit Catcher. I was easy for me to slip back in time. Thanks so much for your post. I enjoyed the excerpt.

Sharon Hamilton said...

Thanks, Julie. I do too. I love being taken to a place I've never been before.

Sharon Hamilton said...

Karen, exactly!! I didn't go looking for controversy, and IMHO didn't find it, but oh, what a shame what we've done. We are the greatest people, but sometimes so narrow minded.

Sharon Hamilton said...

Judy, yes, the research literally brought the book to life. Best of luck with Spirit Catcher. Awesome that you went to that museum. One of the things I want to do as well...

jean hart stewart said...

Absolutely love learning about new things. Your column was a joy...

Cara Marsi said...

Sharon, I pre-ordered your book. I love your SEAL books, but I can't resist one with a Native American hero. I love Native American culture. We once spent four days on Navajo lands while visiting the Southwest. My husband and I go to the Southwest about once a year. I so want to live in Arizona. I've been to the Heard Museum, been to Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff. I still want to see Four Corners. I have a G.I. Joe doll that is supposed to be a Navajo code talker. You pull the cord and he speaks Navajo I've never taken him out of his box.

stanalei said...

That was a beautiful excerpt, Sharon. Congratulations on the book. I will be check it out!

Melissa Keir said...

What a wonderful story Sharon. I wish you all the best with your story. I loved the history of the Native People. They had such a full lifestyle that was forced to change when the American Citizens came in search for land and gold.

Sharon Hamilton said...

Jean, thanks so much for taking the time to read this over. I'm glad you learned something. It's been a fun journey!

Sharon Hamilton said...

Thank you, Cara Marsi! I've loved traveling there too. Something about the people and the lands calls to me, as it does you. I could see myself in Arizona very easily. That's awesome about the GI Joe doll. What a collector's item! Don't blame you for not taking it out of the box!

Sharon Hamilton said...

Thank you both Sanalei and Melissa for checking the book out! Appreciate it so much.

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