“Yáat’eh,” I said, hoping I got the tones of the greeting right.
It must have been okay, for the elderly Navajo man who had opened the door shook my hand, then pulled me into a hug.
Tentative, amazed this was happening, I followed the missionary I had come with and this gracious man into his home. He disappeared for a moment, then came back with his Navajo Bible, wearing an embroidered headband and heavy turquoise necklace, a smile on his face. He sat down at the table with us, reached for our hands, and launched into a long prayer to Jesus in Navajo.
Other than a word or two, I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but my throat choked with tears as he prayed. My family and critique partners, who know the Navajo hero of my novel, would understand why.
This was the two men’s usual Bible study time, but I had been invited along to learn about our host’s experience going to boarding school as a boy, since that is a big focus of my manuscript. I discovered he had also worked on the railroad, like my hero. But while I learned much from his stories, what stands out most in my memory was just the honor of being received into the home of one of the indigenous hosts of our land, his warm welcome, praying with him in spirit as he talked to our common Lord in his own language—so long forbidden by those who claimed to represent Jesus—and, toward the end, listening to him sing Psalms in traditional Navajo chant style, which allows the words to retain their proper tones and thus meaning. (In Navajo translations of English hymns, the tunes tend to render some of the words of this highly tonal language unintelligible or even grossly distorted.)
“Now this whole book is my songbook,” he said, patting the Bible. He has been making Scripture song CDs for some time; yet some Christians still protest the using of such a Navajo sound, forgetting perhaps that writers like John and Charles Wesley used to adapt the popular music of their culture—English pub songs, for instance—into their great hymns.
We also visited a gracious elderly lady that morning, who attended boarding school in Ignacio, Colorado, as a little girl, taken in the back of a pick-up truck far from home along with many other Navajo children. Much of what she told us I had already learned through research into the boarding schools where vast numbers of Native American children were taken for much of the twentieth century—and the repercussions continue to this day. Yet to hear it from the lips of one who had actually lived it as a child meant so much more.
Then that evening, through a series of God-moments, I found myself at a corner table in a Country Family Restaurant, my fingers flying across my laptop keyboard between snatching bites of soup and salad as a Navajo Code Talker told me his experience, all the way from joining up at age 17, through Boot Camp and learning the Code, through horrendous combat on Bougainville and Guam and Iwo Jima, to victory and finally coming home. I could hardly believe I was really sitting there with this true World War II hero and his lovely wife, who had rearranged their evening to graciously share their stories and lives with me.
It’s one of the greatest privileges of writing historical fiction, I’m learning—to meet and learn from the people who were really there in what I am writing about. To remember that the characters who have become so real in my mind and heart are partly so because they reflect real people who lived and breathed the truth I hope my story mirrors. To pray and hope and strive to write in a way that honors, and helps tell the stories of, those who were there.