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A look inside a ‘Navajo Code Talker Manual’

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Learn how the code was formed; how to make one yourself

During World War II, 29 Navajo Marines were given the task of creating a code using their language, which developed into a system used by more than 400 fellow Navajos to relay information in a language the Japanese were never able to decipher. They came to be known as the Navajo Code Talkers.

Yet, there are likely people who are not living near the Navajo Nation who don’t know about the Navajo Code Talkers, since they were not taught about them in school.

Aaron Downey, managing editor at Rio Nuevo Publishers, based in Tucson, was one of those people.

“I didn’t know much about the Code Talkers before I started working in Arizona,” Downey said. “The more I learned about them here, the more I realized it’s a travesty I hadn’t known much about them before.”

Downey hopes the recently published Navajo Code Talker Manual will help introduce readers to this important historic chapter, and show them how the code was created and even how they can create their own codes.

“Our government put Navajo children in schools where they were beaten and worse. We literally attempted to beat their language and culture out of them,” he said in an interview with the Gallup Sun Nov. 26. “Years later, that language we tried to destroy at one point, is what helped us win World War II. It’s thick with irony, and the type of historical lesson we can’t let fall by the wayside of history.”

 

THE PROJECT BEGINNINGS

The Navajo Code Talker Manual is a re-creation of a pivotal part of history, Downey said. It was a project that took several years to come to fruition as a published work.

In January 2018, Downey was looking at the portfolios of several artists and designers online, when he came across a project that Gabriel Schut had created and submitted for a class project while he was a senior at Kent State University.

“I instantly knew it was something that would appeal to us for publishing and shared it with other staff,” Downey said.

Jim Turner, an Arizona historian and associate editor at Rio Nuevo Publishers, shared Downey’s enthusiasm.

“I was excited about this project for two reasons,” Turner said. “The first reason was the design of the book. The second was that we were going to talk about just the code.”

Turner said most people think the Navajo Code Talkers just used their language to relay information, but the process of creating a code and sharing it in seconds is much more intricate than that.

Word substitution was the first part of the process, with Navajos using words with common translations like “dineh-nay-ye-hi”, or man carrier, to indicate a military transport vehicle.

The second part of the process was using a letter cipher, wherein the Navajo spoke a series of words and the first letter of each translated word would spell out a new word. For instance, the code talker would say “shush” (bear), “a-kha” (oil), “tsin-tliti” (match), “toish-jeh” (barrel), and the recipient would decode the phrase as “bomb”.

Moreover, these two processes of creating codes could be combined, effectively giving a code talker three layers of code to understand and work with, Turner said.

“There were Hopi and Cherokee code talkers in World War I,” Turner said. “But the Navajos were the only ones who used a three-layer approach.”

 

DESIGNING THE MANUAL

When readers pick up the Navajo Code Talker Manual, they are first met with an unorthodox design. The manual stands tall and relatively thin, more like a large notebook than a standard novel or guide book.

Given the appearance of the cover and the feel of the pages, it looks and feels more like an artifact from decades past, instead of a contemporary book.

The book’s spine is at the top, reinforcing the notebook feel as the reader turns through a number of pages, some of which are a different color than the rest, and others that fold out to reveal more information.

One such fold-out is the dictionary, which shows each Navajo word that corresponded to a letter in the English alphabet, as well as a translation. This dictionary precedes the section that details the methods the code talkers used while relaying their codes.

“It was a pretty unique circumstance to work with [Rio Nuevo’s] printer to make their book as close to mine as possible,” Schut said. “This includes the craft paper feel and the dictionary fold-out in the manual.”

While Schut updated his prototype design, Turner rewrote all the text for the manual and Downey edited it.

“One thing I love about [the manual], you can get the code and make one yourself,” Turner said. “You have the tools right there to do so.”

These revisions and redesigns took place from June to October 2018, and the team had the new design in hand by December 2018.

“It was a real team effort,” Downey said. “We figured out a way to update the examples in the manual, so they would actually work. It was a really difficult task to do the special elements of the book.”

But the authenticity of the book’s design, as well as the content within the book is what Downey believes will draw people to it.

 

LEARNING FROM HISTORY

Downey feels the Navajo Code Talker Manual is a good introduction to the Navajo Code Talkers, which can be followed by other books Rio Nuevo Publishers has produced, including Code Talker Stories, Navajo Weapon: The Navajo Code Talkers, and Search for the Navajo Code Talkers.

In fact, the authors of those books, Laura Tohe and Sally McClain, vetted the manual in early 2019. Zonnie Gorman, scholar and daughter of one of the original 29 code talkers, Carl Gorman, was also one of those who vetted the manual.

Turner says the manual presents another side of the story for people to learn about the Navajo Code Talkers and their work. “The manual is not about the code talkers going to war, or what they went through, or what has already been written about in other books,” Turner said. “It’s a focus on how the code was designed. That, in itself, is a different story, and I think it’s a wonderful story.”

“I want people to recall why it’s important for our culture, and to keep the Navajo language alive,” Downey said. “It is important for everyone to remember the Navajo Code Talkers. They were sworn to secrecy. They came back from the war, had PTSD and other ailments. They weren’t allowed to talk about it, and they kept their word. Some of them didn’t even talk about it after it was declassified in 1968.”

The Navajo Code Talkers were Marines first and foremost, which is part of the reason it took over 20 years for this operation to be declassified, Downey added.

The Navajo Code Talker Manual is available for purchase from Amazon or Rio Nuevo Publishers. The manual is also available at select retailers.

For more information on Rio Nuevo Publishers, visit rionuevo.com.

By Cody Begaye
Sun Correspondent

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