Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: The War Begins

President Roosevelt declared war on Japan the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. Volunteers flocked to military recruitment offices to enlist. Since there were none of these on the reservation, dozens of Navajo men gathered outside the superintendent's office, armed with hunting rifles and ready to fight the enemy. However, they were sent home since no draft call had been sent out and no enlistment procedures were in place on the reservation as yet.

On December 7, 1941, Keith Little was at boarding school in Ganado, Arizona. He and some of his fellow students had been hunting with .22 rifles and had a rabbit simmering over a fire in the woods beyond the school, being thoroughly sick of what they referred to as "cafeteria gruel." While they waited for it to finish cooking one of the boys went back to the dorm for something. When the boy returned, Little recalls this conversation.

"Hey, Pearl Harbor was bombed!"
"Where's Pearl Harbor?"
"In Hawaii."
"Who did it?"
"Why'd they do it?"
"They hate Americans. They want to kill all Americans."
"Us too?"
"Yeah, us too."

Little and his friends promised each other they would use their .22 rifles to go after the Japanese instead of rabbits. I found this in an article by Bruce Watson, "Navajo Code Talkers: A Few Good Men." It can be found in the Smithsonian, August 1993.

Next: The Navajo Language

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Unbreakable Code: Indian School

At the end of the bitter four-year confinement at Bosque Redondo the survivors of the Long Walk returned to their belolved homeland between the four sacred mountains. One of the stipulations of the Treaty of 1868 that allowed them to return was that all of their children between the ages of six and sixteen were to attend school. The government was supposed to provide the classrooms and a competent teacher for every thirty students. Since the roads were so bad and the winters so severe the children remained at boarding schools for months at a time, away from their families. In addition, it was the policy of the federal schools to expedite "acculturation" as speedily as possible. They were forbidden to speak Navajo while there. Punishment for this ranged from beatings with a strap to boys being dressed in girls clothing to having one's mouth washed out with strong soap.

The children were reminded constantly that they had to learn to dress, to speak, and to think like white people. They were to forget their Navajo upbringing and their Navajo way of life, which they had been taught was beautiful and good and given to them by their own Holy People. They were to forget all this in order to become like the Anglos and to pray to their deity. However, their parents and grandparents would not let them forget that the white man had been their enemy. He had subjected them to life on a reservation, had been responsible for the terrors of the Long Walk, deprived them of their land and freedom, and the right to many of their ancient ceremonies and religious rites. But more importantly, he still considered them savages and heathens.

As one can see from the preceding events, the Navajos had little cause to get involved in the "white man's war." However, they saw the attack on Pearl Harbor as an attack on the Navajo Nation as well as on the forty-eight states. They felt that the beauty of their Reservation and its holy ground must be defended. Although this may seem inconsistent with the treatment they received at the hands of Kit Carson and General Carleton, it is not inconsistent with the Navajo's love of their land.

Next: The war begins.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Stock Reduction

New Mexico and Arizona gained statehood in 1912. Oil was discovered on Navajo lands, bringing more federal involvement in tribal affairs. Toward the end of the 1920s the government became concerned that soil erosion on Navajo lands was the result of overgrazing by Navajo livestock. Government observers linked the silt-runoff problems at nearby Lake Mead and Hoover Dam to the erosion on Navajo grazing lands. President Franklin Roosevelt initiated the Navajo Stock Reduction Program to deal with this problem.

The administration planned to replace traditional sheep herds with fewer hybrid animals that would produce more meat and wool per animal,hoping the stress to the environment would be less since there would be fewer animals on the grazing land. Also, the government would hire Navajo workers to build dams, bridges, and schools to make up for loss of income due to the reduction of their herds.

However, the plan didn't work since there were not enough jobs to make up for the lost income. Instead of gaining more grazing lands by reducing herds, the grasses died and less desirable plants sprung up in their place. In an attempt to protect their herds, each family settled in an area and claimed as much land as possible. Since they no longer moved about constantly and spread grazing over large areas, the result was the overgrazing of nearby grasslands. Government officials began destroying sheep and goats, turning Navajo prosperity into poverty and the Dineh again faced hunger because of government actions. The Navajo consider stock reduction another great tragedy in their history. Only the Long Walk was worse.

Next: School Days

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Troubles with the U.S. Government

There was an intermittent state of turmoil between the United States and the Navajos in the years preceding the final battle in Canyon de Chelly and their subsequent removal from their homeland. One of the causes was the slave trade in the Southwest, which had existed for generations, but it had become so extensive by 1850 that it was estimated that thousands of Indians were laboring in New Mexican homes. A young Navajo could go for as high as $200 on the auction block. Those involved in the trade found it to their advantage to keep things stirred up between the United States and the Navajos so as to gain official sanction for their trading activities. Activities by these traffickers in human flesh served to keep relations in turmoil.

General James H. Carleton arrived in New Mexico in September 1862 with orders to destroy the Navajo and Apache threat to the white settlers there. To carry out these orders he picked Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson. His orders to Carson were simple: kill all the men who resisted and capture the women and children. Skirmishes went on intermittently until January 1864 when the Navajos made their last stand against Carson and the U.S. Cavalry in the massive Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. With its thousand foot walls all around and only one entrance it seemed the ideal stronghold. However, Carson and his men rode across Navajo lands and into the canyon burning hogans, destroying crops, uprooting fruit trees, and killing livestock. By winter the canyon sanctuary had become a prison for the surviving Navajos who had taken refuge there, and without food or shelter from the cold, they had no choice but to surrender.

The defeat at Canyon de Chelly brought the greatest tragedy in Navajo history. They were forced to leave their homeland and make what became known as the Long Walk to Bosque Redondo. Hundreds died during the 300-mile journey, and upon arrival they found the area already occupied by the Mescalero Apaches, among others. Many more died in the strange and crowded land that was to be their home for the next four years. Approximately 8,500 Navajos began the Long Walk, and only 6,000 returned to their homeland.

The Kit Carson era was the most tragic in Navajo history. The Long Walk was to the Navajo nation what the Holocaust was to the European Jews. The survivors never forgot what they experienced, and they passed the stories on to their children and grandchildren. To the Navajos, the Long Walk and the years at Bosque Redondo were the worst things they had to endure in the name of Manifest Destiny.

Next: Statehood and More Troubles

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: Navajo Belief About Death

One Navajo belief that has caused many difficulties for them in their dealings with outsiders over time is their fear of death. This was especially true of the Navajos who fought in America's wars of the 20th Century. They are not afraid of dying, but want no part of anything that has already died. The Navajo faith teaches that people are not totally extinguished at their deaths. Unlike Christianity, however, the traditional Navajo religion did not assign the souls of the dead to an afterlife in another world. Traditional Navajos believed that the evil part of a dead creature or person lingered on Earth. The chindi, as these spirits were called, returned to the place where the person had died to terrorize the living. Chindi were to be avoided at all costs. Once a person was dead, his or her name was not to be mentioned again, even if the dead person was a loved one.

If a person died in their hogan, the body had to be taken out through a hole in the northern wall, since north is the direction of evil to a Navajo. The hogan was either burned to the ground or abandoned and allowed to fall in on itself. One of the greatest favors a belegana (white person) could offer to Navajos was to bury their dead relatives for them. Burial was an ominous task, and elaborate ritual precautions had to be taken to protect those who had to perform it.In the Pacific war, Navajo Code Talkers were surrounded by chindi. They lived among death and slept among death. They had to pull bodies of dying and dead comrades out of vine-choked ditches and slimy rivers; they huddled in fox holes all night long while dead enemies lay in the darkness around them.

Next: Troubles with the US government

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Unbreakable Code: The Female Principle

Even during the Nineteenth Century the Navajo treatment of their women was strikingly different from that of most other tribes. This equality was close to the women's rights doctrine of today. The marriage ceremony was simply eating a meal together, and divorce was just as easy. The goods were divided equally with the children going with the mother. Free love went along with women's rights. None of the women were chaste, and venereal disease was always a problem.

A Navajo man would never make a bargain without consulting his wife or wives, and they never struck their women. Because of being treated well, Navajo women were better looking than the average women of other tribes, and consequently were coveted by the slave traders. Their main deity is a woman, who assists the Navajo after death to fight his way through the evil spirits and get across the great water barrier to the other side. She will not do this unless they have treated their women well.

Next: How the Navajo death beliefs affected the Code Talkers during the WWII.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Unbreakable Code Continued

The Spanish arrived in 1598, and the Navajos, large and powerful by that time, raided their settlements frequently. By the end of the century they had acquired livestock-horses, cattle, sheep, and goats-by raiding and trading with the Spaniards. The Navajos considered these raids to be economic pursuits rather than war. Being very adaptable, they also learned agriculture, architecture, weaving, and improved pottery techniques from the Pueblo people who were already here when the Navajos arrived. Then the United States took possession of the southwestern territories in 1846. The Mexicans and the Navajos had been fighting and stealing from each other for centuries, and they didn't stop just because the Americans were in control.

The Navajo social structure was flexible, and underwent enormous changes over several centuries, but the reason they have been able to survive when other tribes have since disappeared has been their ability to adapt to their situation and environment. Certain themes have persisted in their culture, however: the primacy of age, individualism, reciprocity, and the female principle. Old people are honored. Age has as much to do with the power structure in a community as wealth does. Even the poorest of people are treated with the utmost respect if they are advanced in years. The rights and wishes of the individual are extremely important. No person has the right to speak for another, or to tell them what to do. Every debt must be repaid no matter how long it takes. The ledger is never closed. This is also true for a favor. It must be recompensed. If someone is unable to repay a debt, either of material goods or a kindness, his family feels obligated to do so.

Children are usually considered descended matrilineally. At the center of the social unit is a core of women - mother, daughter, sister - and their sons and brothers. Women are often the instigators in matters of romance. At the Squaw Dances, for instance, the girls most often select the partners. The wife's desire to live with her mother usually takes precedence over the husband's wish to stay with his, and often a brother/sister relationship is more important than a husband/wife one. This "female principle" could explain the low occurrence of rape on the Navajo reservation, which is nearly half that of the general American rural population.

Next: More on the female principle.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Unbreakable Code Part 1

A few years back I started reading Tony Hillerman's mystery novels set on the Navajo reservation and became fascinated with the Navajo culture. I started doing research of my own on them and came across the story of the Code Talkers assigned to the Marines in the Pacific. This is such an intriguing story I wanted to share it with others, but I'll have to do this in several posts. First, a little background.

Julius Caesar said, "I came, I saw, I conquered." His descendants and their kin, not wishing to be outdone by their famous ancestor, did likewise in the New World. They came. They saw. They took. They came, those restless Europeans, some searching for riches, others yearning for a better life than the one they left across the sea. Some fled religious persecution that ravaged the European continent. Still others came to escape the gallows. They came, for whatever reason. They saw a vast and beautiful land with room for all, it would seem, who had the tenacity and the grit to tame it. And then they took and took and took.

American for the Americans, from sea to shining sea. That was the belief in the middle of the Nineteenth Century as the United States geared up for its push to expand westward. Newspapers and politicians touted Manifest Destiny, the notion that the Americans were divinely sanctioned to cover the continent with their own brand of enlightenment. Americans were the chosen, ordained by God to extend the national boundaries from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico, and that's what they set out to do. However, there was a problem. Someone was already here, and they didn't go gently into the night.

The Navajos were one of the many native nations that lived in the southwestern section of the continent. They were primarily located in northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico, and southern Utah. The Navajos and their linguistic cousins, the Apaches, arrived in the Southwest sometime in the mid-fourteenth century. The traditional homeland area of the Dineh, meaning "the people," which is the name Navajos use to refer to themselves, is at the Gobernador and Largo tributaries of the San Juan River seventy miles west of Santa Fe. The earliest Navajos were organized into small groups with a headman whose job was to lead the people to find food and water.

Next: The arrival of the Spanish.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Common One Hundred

What do the following words have in common?


They're perfectly good English words, right? How many times have you heard them in the course of a conversation? How many times have they crept into your writing over time? They are on a list of the one hundred most commonly overused words in the English language. But never fear. There's a book that addresses that. The title is A Cure for the Common Word by K.D. Sullivan. The back blurb on the book tells us our brains hold a vocabulary of more than 20,000 words, but we only use a small fraction of them. Instead we use the same words over and over. Words like interesting, good, and nice. I mean, how general and abstract are those?

Each word has a two-page spread with definitions, sample sentences, quotes, and an extensive list of synonyms. These can be found in any good thesaurus, of course, but the list breaks them down into parts of speech. Nearly 60% are adjectives and adverbs.

Let's take interesting, for example. The author provides ( I almost said gives, but it's on the list) 39 "cures," with seven "powerful remedies." Here are the remedies for interesting:


It's better than a thesaurus because the author zeroes in on the culprits. It's well worth the $14.95 list price. So, when you begin the revision process and find your prose or poetry ho-hum, grab this little gem of a book and start circling words.

Writing Prompt:
Write about the stain on the wall.