When Navajo Indian Ned Begay decides to enlist in World War II, the war provides him with a unique opportunity to use his heritage - which his white American teachers always told him was useless and inferior to theirs - to make a difference and prove them wrong. Ned grows up on the Navajo reservation at a time when going to boarding schools run by white, English-speaking Americans is just starting to become more common. His parents see the value in having their children learn good English in addition to Navajo. Ned quickly learns that boarding school with these teachers requires patience, tact, and a high tolerance for injustice. From his first day, it is clear they know little about Navajo culture, from the language and names to hairstyle to clothing and so on. Furthermore, they are not allowed to speak Navajo. Some outright refuse and are frequently punished; others stop speaking Navajo as they are told; and a great many speak only in secret when their teachers will not catch them, and at home with their families during vacations. The school is lower in quality to non-reservation schools for white students, and expectations are equally low. Ned is intelligent and interested in learning, and does well in school; one of his teachers' typical compliments is that he is pretty good for a Navajo. That they would equal their white counterparts is considered inconceivable.
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When Ned is a high school sophomore, recruiters come to recruit the oldest students to serve in the military during World War II. Ned is still too young. The following year, at age 16, he convinces a recruiter he is old enough and enlists. He is one of the Navajos selected for a special mission to learn and use an unbreakable code based on the Navajo language to send and receive important messages. He will be a code talker. By the time he arrives, the basics are in place; he is in the second round of Navajos to learn the code, and are taught by two of the code's creators. White officers at one point also want to include white code talkers, and recruit several trainees from white trader families on the reservation. Though some can manage when it comes to everyday Navajo language, every one fails badly when it comes to the code. After hearing all their life how inferior they is because they are Navajo, it is satisfying to be able to prove that in this vital area, only Navajos are capable enough to do the job.
Throughout the war, even after he goes to the battlefield, Ned and his code talker colleagues constantly expand the code to address new communication needs as they arise. During the military portion of his training, he and his Navajo compatriots earn considerable respect from their non-Navajo colleagues. They are seen as the toughest of the tough. Sometimes, this is due to living conditions on the reservation that require greater physical fitness and stamina. Other times, it is due to their special knowledge as Navajos. One training session takes them across a desert with only a canteen of water each. The other soldiers are out of water by the time they get halfway across. The Navajos secretly obtain their water from cactus, allowing others to think they are just super tough.
In the field, Ned and his code talker colleagues soon gain respect of their superiors. Working in teams of two, one speaks and mans the radio, while the other records the message. Those without code talkers begin to request them. They prove themselves to be effective and efficient - and from one battle to the next, their code is never broken. It is not always easy. One night that Ned spends in a hole next to a dead man, for instance, is quite long; being so close to a dead person is somewhat creepier for a Navajo than it would be even for a typical American. Iwo Jima is described as the most intense battle, and several teams of talkers help communicate between those on the battlefield and those waiting to enter. It is particularly disconcerting that near the beginning, there seem to be no Japanese on the island, but they appear and begin their attack after a significant number of soldiers are already trapped among their ranks. Ned also describes the famous photo of the American men with the flag at the top of Iwo Jima. The famous photo was actually a restaging the following day. One of the men in the photo was a Navajo – not a code talker, but still a Navajo. Throughout all the battles, the code talkers are able to make a distinct difference in many important battles of the South Pacific as they approach Japan.
When Ned returns home, for many years he, like other code talkers, is not allowed to speak of his real classification and actual work during World War II. The government wishes to keep it classified in case there is a need to use it again. Eventually, though, they decide the chances of using it are unlikely, and the code is declassified. Ned and his colleagues are able to tell the world about their experiences and show them that yes, Navajos can be just as good, just as important, and even more so, than their non-Indian colleagues, and that they are able to be so important precisely because they have preserved the language and background that the American reservation schools tried so hard to take away.
Best part of story, including ending:
It was particularly satisfying to have the feeling of "I told you so" to the teachers at Ned's school when Ned and his colleagues use the Navajo language to make a huge difference in the American efforts during World War II.
Best scene in story:
During military training, Ned's team is given the job of crossing a desert with a canteen of water each. By the time they are halfway across, Ned's non-Navajo colleagues are out of water and having difficulty continuing. Ned and his Navajo buddies still have most of their water left. The non-Navajos can't understand how they are conserving their water. The Navajos never mention the value of the plentiful cactus that they know only too well from the reservation at home. It is too amusing and satisfying to so easily give the impression of being so tough and watching their colleagues' reactions.
Opinion about the main character:
Ned is surprisingly young for someone to enlist, though he's able to make it through and do a lot. He is also rather diplomatic but stubborn in a reserved, inconspicuous sort of way while he is in school, seeming to come out with the best of both worlds.