By Maya Patterson
Last week WOW Currents presented a list of American Indian literature and children’s books. This week, we take a closer look at The Unbreakable Code by Sara Hoagland Hunter and illustrated by Julia Miner. This picture book inspired the art from Tucson High Magnet School and Van Buskirk Elementary School in Worlds of Words’s “Code Making and Perspective Taking” exhibit, open from October 28 to December 15.
The Unbreakable Code begins with John, an American Indian boy, hiding on his favorite spot of his grandfather’s land. John sits on top of a canyon surrounded by desert greenery and overlooking a river and rocky land. John hides because he does not want to pack his belongings to leave for Minnesota with his mother and step-father.
John’s grandfather soon finds John because this spot on the canyon is his favorite, too. He reassures John that the Navajo land, language and culture will always be with him because it’s part of the unbreakable code. John’s grandfather knows this because many years ago he too had to leave to protect the land. During World War II, John’s grandfather left the Indian residential school he was in to join the military and become a Navajo code talker.
Throughout the rest of the book, we learn about John’s grandfather’s experience in the war effort and the Navajo code. The story teaches John and the reader about the Navajo code and how the code talkers used it. We also learn about the code talkers’ experiences during the war.
In 2006, as part of the literacy program created by former Governor of Arizona, Janet Napolitano, all 4th grade students in Arizona received a copy of The Unbreakable Code.
Sara Hoagland Hunter’s story comes from a real-life Navajo code talker. His story brings people of all cultures together to understand the Navajo contribution to WWII and the Navajo’s connection to their land and culture. John’s grandfather calms John’s worry and sadness and shows him the deeper ties to his own culture. Hunter’s message inspires many people to reflect on their shared histories, cultures and traditions.
Further, the reader can explore and understand the Navajo code on the final pages of the book. These pages show the alphabet and the key words in the Navajo code. Readers of all ages are able to see what words were used for each letter and can reflect on why those words were chosen.
For WOW’s “Code Making and Perspective Taking” exhibit, the WOW Art Studio features original art by Julia Miner published in The Unbreakable Code. On creating the art for this book, Miner said, “Illustrating The Unbreakable Code — meeting the remarkable men who were Code Talkers, hearing their stories, and understanding more about the Navajo Way — was a life-changing privilege that keeps on giving.” The artwork, oil paints on canvas, feature desert landscapes, imaginings from John’s grandfather’s experience in the war, and touching scenes of the two main characters.
The Navajo were only one of the American Indian nations that participated in WWII as code talkers, however. In partnership with the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI), WOW’s exhibit also features historical documents on the war efforts of many nations, courtesy of the Hopi Veterans Services and Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, The Hopi Tribe.
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