I don’t always set out to read books on related topics. Some books I read because they are school related. Some I read because I receive review copies. Others I read for all sorts of reasons. In this case, I read The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper because I teach it in my American Story Humanities class. I read Under the Eagle: Samuel Holiday Navaho Code Talker because I received it as a review book from Oklahoma University Press.
Somewhere in the process, I began seeing the connection between these two books. Both shed light on the plight of the American Indian and their resilience and courage. As is often the case with Native American studies, both turn a focus on a people and situations that have been politely ignored in our society and historical studies.
James Fenimore Cooper is a defining figure in American literature. He carved out the future of American literature by using America as the setting for many of his stories. He wrote the first sea novels and spy novels. He was the first best selling and internationally successful American fiction writer. As it happens, most people who read Cooper today do so because he is assigned in a class. Since he wrote novels, and rather lengthly ones, sometimes he is completely skipped over in surveys. The biggest hindrance to reading Cooper is Cooper himself. He was a master of descriptive, elaborate, and fullsome prose. He used extensive description in describing the setting of his stories, the characters of his stories, the minor details of his stories, and the introductions to his stories. If Cooper had ever read a story or two by Ernest Hemingway, he might have drastically improved his writing. But without Cooper, it is hard to imagine Hemingway existing.
One of Cooper’s great contributions to literature was his focus upon Indians. Specifically, he created a great heroic character named Natty Bumpo, and Natty Bumpo, also known as the Pathfinder, the Deerslayer, the Scout, Hawkeye, and La Longue Carabine, had a close companion named Chingachgook. This great chief of the Mohicans and member of the larger tribe of the Delaware was a great and noble character. Natty Bumpo has been described as a Knight with a Gun. Chingachgook was knightly in his own right. Cooper does allow, and mentions frequently, that the white Natty Bumpo and the red Chingachgook have different cultures and different gifts. In a stunning scene in The Last of the Mohicans, a young Frenchman on guard duty is stealthily dispatched and scalped by Chingachgook. The young fellow seemed like such an innocent, naive chap, but an enemy is an enemy, so Chingachgook took care of him.
Chingachgook is the last Mohican. His son, Uncas, was the last great hope of a once great people. The death of Uncas leaves Chingachgook bereft of his son, his people, his land, and his heritage. Natty, his faithful friend, shares his grief and both basically covenant together to live outside the pale of the white man’s civilization. In the world of the Leatherstocking Tales, there were plenty of bad people. Almost always, the French were untrustworthy, but Hurons were even worse. But it is not as though Cooper whitewashes the whites. His book changed the mindset of readers because of the good Indians, such as Chingachgook, his wife Wah-ta-Wah (also known as Hist-to-Hist), and his son Uncas. In spite of all the clunky phrases and overly long descriptions and plot sequences that are odd, Cooper’s writing is still powerful and his characters are memorable.
Under the Eagle gives a first hand account of a group of American patriots and soldiers who served with great bravery in World War II. Because of the secret nature of their work, their contribution was unrecognized for many, too many, years. Growing up Navaho, Samuel Holiday had the opportunity to go to school. His mother really wanted him to stay home and herd sheep. (They lived in Utah.) Samuel persisted in going to school. One of the first lessons, and not a nice one, was that the Navaho students were not to speak their native language, but were to master English.
Ironically, it was the Navaho language that was then called for after the United States entered into World War II. Because of the insight of Technical Sergeant Philip Johnson, the U. S. Marines began training Navaho Indians in the use of communication radios. In the heavy fighting that would be necessary in the Pacific War, communication was essential. But radio signals were and are open to all. Codes could be developed, and codes could be cracked. The complicated nature of the Navaho language and the ready facility of its use by Navoho men combined into an effective weapon.
Navaho Indians were engaged in many of the key battles in the Pacific. They made a great contribution to the string of American island hopping victories. As it turned out, the complexion of the Navahos was sometimes a great disadvantage. At least twice, one of the times when he was bathing in a water hole, Samuel Holiday was mistaken for being Japanese. An innocent mistake, perhaps, but it was quite humiliating and irritating.
After the war, the Code Talkers were not able to tell their stories. Thankfully, post-World War II America was appreciative toward veterans, but still there were honors due that were not received. In time, the story of the Code Talkers began emerging. President Ronald Reagan declared August 14, 1982 National Navaho Code Talkers Day. Others honors and recognition have been given.
I really enjoyed Under the Eagle. I was amazed at how unquestioning the Indians were regarding service to America when World War II broke out. Their people had suffered historically and many Indians suffered personally from events and attitudes. But when the nation needed them, they went into war to defend the U.S.A.
Another note, lots of Indian, or particularly Navaho, cultural and religious practices are discussed in Under the Eagle. Part of the strength of the book is that Samuel Holiday himself is telling his story. The co-author, Robert S. McPherson, gave further commentary and explanation of the Navaho culture.