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New children's book shares Navajo Code Talker's life story
Roy Hawthorne, 89, served as a Navajo code talker with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1943 to 1945. He effortlessly recalls how they came up with codes to trick the Japanese. (Nov. 11) AP
FARMINGTON — When Joseph Bruchac was approached in 2016 to adapt a Navajo Code Talker's biography into a book for children, he graciously accepted it.
His work has resulted in "Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code," which tells the story of Chester Nez, who was the last surviving member of the 29 original Navajo Code Talkers when he died in June 2014.
The children's book was adapted from the 2012 biography, "Code Talker: The first and only memoir by one of the original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII," written by Nez and Judith Schiess Avila.
Bruchac took on the project because he thought it was important to share the story of the code talkers and their contribution to World War II, in light of Navajo children at that time being told not to speak their native language as part of cultural assimilation by the federal government.
"The story makes the point that every person and every culture has something to offer," he said. "Even though the Navajo people were told they should forget their culture and their language, it turned out that language provided a great service to the United States."
Using Nez and Avila's book for guidance, in addition to research and corresponding with Avila and with Nez's son, Michael Nez, and grandson, Lathan Nez, Bruchac told the code talker's story from his first day at boarding school to his military service and his return home.
"I think the real credit for this story has to go to Judith and Chester … because I could not have done what I did without their book," Bruchac said.
"The fact they thought it was accurate, that they liked the way it was told was very moving and meaningful to me," he added.
When Michael Nez learned about Bruchac's effort to adapt his father's book for a younger audience, he thought is was a great way to sustain the story of the code talkers.
"I approved of it. …I'm very proud of my father," Michael Nez said in a telephone interview.
The book was published by Albert Whitman & Company, which is known for producing "The Boxcar Children" series.
Andrea Hall, editor for the company, said it was an honor to produce the book because the story touches on a piece of history that is not well-known but needs to be.
"The Navajo Code Talkers played an integral role in WWII which for many years couldn't be told. This book is also a powerful testament to the importance of language, culture and heritage for the Native American community," she said in an email.
Since the book is geared toward children, illustrations were important and help take place of words when explaining certain moments in Nez's life.
Bruchac said one example is when Nez's hair is cut in boarding school and he is forbidden to speak the Navajo language.
The illustration shows black birds carrying away the cut strands.
"It's a very figurative image of the sense of loss, of having your hair taken away from you," Bruchac said.
This is the second book Bruchac, who is of Abenaki ancestry, has written about the Navajo Code Talkers.
His first one, "Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two," was written in cooperation with the Navajo Code Talkers Association.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.