Under the Eagle: Samuel Holiday, Navajo Code Talker

Under the Eagle: Samuel Holiday, Navajo Code Talker

by Samuel Holiday

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Samuel Holiday was one of a small group of Navajo men enlisted by the Marine Corps during World War II to use their native language to transmit secret communications on the battlefield. Based on extensive interviews with Robert S. McPherson, Under the Eagle is Holiday’s vivid account of his own story. It is the only book-length oral history of a…  See more details below


Samuel Holiday was one of a small group of Navajo men enlisted by the Marine Corps during World War II to use their native language to transmit secret communications on the battlefield. Based on extensive interviews with Robert S. McPherson, Under the Eagle is Holiday’s vivid account of his own story. It is the only book-length oral history of a Navajo code talker in which the narrator relates his experiences in his own voice and words.

Under the Eagle carries the reader from Holiday’s childhood years in rural Monument Valley, Utah, into the world of the United States’s Pacific campaign against Japan—to such places as Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. Central to Holiday’s story is his Navajo worldview, which shapes how he views his upbringing in Utah, his time at an Indian boarding school, and his experiences during World War II. Holiday’s story, coupled with historical and cultural commentary by McPherson, shows how traditional Navajo practices gave strength and healing to soldiers facing danger and hardship and to veterans during their difficult readjustment to life after the war.

The Navajo code talkers have become famous in recent years through books and movies that have dramatized their remarkable story. Their wartime achievements are also a source of national pride for the Navajos. And yet, as McPherson explains, Holiday’s own experience was “as much mental and spiritual as it was physical.” This decorated marine served “under the eagle” not only as a soldier but also as a Navajo man deeply aware of his cultural obligations.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Philip Johnston, a former Marine sergeant raised on a Navajo reservation, suggested the development of a communications code using Navajo language and tribe members as “code talkers.” Soon, the Marines had recruited the “Twenty-Nine,” the first group to develop and use this code. Holiday was a member of this group, and his children enlisted historian McPherson (A Navajo Legacy) to assemble this oral history of Holiday’s life and his work as a code talker. A cracking good storyteller, Holiday regales us with tales of his childhood tending sheep in Monument Valley, Utah; his challenging years in boarding school; and his enlistment in the Marines. He follows with his harrowing experiences across South Pacific combat arenas, his difficult return to his community, and his marriage to a woman named Lupita. Holiday frames his journey with elements from the Navajo creation story, in which a young warrior is protected by the eagle, and McPherson sandwiches Holiday’s accounts between an excerpt from that story and a commentary that provides context for Holiday’s words. Although in 1982 President Reagan declared August 14 as National Navajo Code Talkers Day, the group of men brought to life by Holiday’s stories has been mostly forgotten. 30 b&w illus. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Holiday was one of 420 Navajos who served in the Marine Corps during World War II as part of a secret communications program that remained classified for many years after. Using a secret code developed from the Navajo language, these code talkers were employed to communicate quickly yet safely on the battlefield. Holiday is not the first code talker to record his story (e.g., see Chester Nez's Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII), but his oral history, as recorded by McPherson (history, Utah State Univ.; coauthor with Holiday, A Navajo Legacy: The Life and Teachings of John Holiday) is not simply a war memoir but an exploration of his Navajo worldview and how that perspective influenced him during and after the war. In each chapter, Holiday includes a brief portion of the larger Navajo history and their origin stories. McPherson provides additional commentary to place Holiday's story in further context. VERDICT A rather untraditional but very enlightening autobiography. Rich in details of Navajo tradition and spirituality, this book will appeal to those interested in Native American culture as well as those interested in World War II and the code talker program.—Michael C. Miller, Austin P.L. & Austin History Ctr., TX
Kirkus Reviews
A combination of memoir and ethnography study examining an unusual, inspiring aspect of the World War II Pacific campaign. Holiday is one of the last living Navajo "code talkers," a group of Native American Marines recruited to develop an unbreakable code derived from their unique tribal language. As co-author McPherson (History/Utah State Univ., Blanding; Navajo Land, Navajo Culture: The Utah Experience in the Twentieth Century, 2002, etc.) observes, "The Navajo code talker experience was as much mental and spiritual as it was physical [due to]…the emphasis Navajo culture placed on religion." One strength of their collaboration is a clear portrait of the daily challenges faced by the Code Talkers in both training and battle. Holiday's engaging musings on his hardscrabble (yet tradition-inflected) childhood and the young Navajo males' surreal entry into war alternate with McPherson's explications of Native American history, symbolism and ritual. The scholar argues that Holiday's experiences connected these ancient cultural markers to the Marines' intense "island hopping" campaign against the Japanese. Holiday seems serene in recalling participation in brutal battles at Saipan and Iwo Jima, though he notes that the Code Talkers were frequently at risk of being mistaken for the Japanese foe. Following the war, he overcame "nightmares of the enemy standing over me smiling" by having an "Enemy Way" ceremony performed for him. Still, the Code Talkers found postwar life challenging, having been sworn to secrecy. Since each chapter contains an overview of relevant Navajo symbolism, followed by part of Holiday's recollection of his improbable life story and McPherson's lengthy interpretation of the young soldier's experiences, the overall narrative feels rather unwieldy. However, many readers will find the fusion of military and cultural histories enjoyable and fascinating. The combination of Holiday's recollections and McPherson's academic expertise creates a valuable addition to the canon of specific WWII narratives.

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University of Oklahoma Press
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Under the Eagle

Samuel Holiday, Navajo Code Talker

By Samuel Holiday, Robert S. McPherson


Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5103-8



Birth and Early Years


In the palm of time following the emergence of the Holy People from the worlds beneath, the gods roamed the earth, making laws and creating things helpful for the future. They formed two women—one from turquoise the other from white shell, Changing Woman (Asdz[??][??]n nádleehé) and White Shell Woman (Yoolgai asdz[??]án)—who grew in miraculous ways, one day equaling a year of human life. Before long they were mature females who conceived through the supernatural means of sunlight and water, producing two boys. The newborns were foreordained to "take care of the ruination on the earth and to kill all of the monsters after which peace would be restored." These children, like their mothers, grew rapidly so that in four days they were twelve years old and ready for instruction. Talking God (Haashch'éélti'i) and Water Sprinkler God (Tó Neinilii) invited them to a long race, but by the time it was half completed the Holy People were running behind the boys, scourging them with mountain mahogany branches, urging them to move faster. Talking God won the race, promising to return in four days to give the boys another opportunity to compete.

The lads were sore, tired, and discouraged, wondering how they could ever triumph against the powers of Talking God and Water Sprinkler. The Holy Wind (Nil'chi), which had been placed on their ear folds, learned of their concern and told them that if they practiced, they could beat the older men, because youth was on their side. For four days the boys trained hard, maturing into strong young competitors. When the race started, the confident runners began passing the two deities so that by the time the race around a mountain was half completed, the roles had reversed and the boys were behind the gods, scourging their backs and encouraging them onward. The oldest of the twins won. The gods were highly pleased at the progress the two boys had made, laughing and clapping their hands in praise of their success.


My name is Samuel Tom Holiday, and I am of the Tódich'inii (Bitter Water) Clan, born for the Bit'ahnii (Folded Arm) as my paternal clan. My maternal grandparents are Tsi'naajinii (Black Streaked Wood People), and my paternal grandparents are Tliziláni (Many Goats Clan). I did not know my paternal grandmother and grandfather very well because they lived in Denehotso, or Reed Valley, at a place called Lók'aa'haagai (White Patch of Reeds). It seemed very far away because we had to walk or ride our horses or travel by wagon. That was the only way we could get there.

I was born around June 2, 1924, an approximate date, since in those days dates were determined by the time of year, the season, or a memorable event. The site is five miles east of present-day Gouldings, Utah, just south of Eagle Rock and Eagle Mesa in Monument Valley. One day my mother, Betsy Yellow, whose Navajo name was 'Asdzáán Tódích'íí'nii (Bitter Water Woman), and I were driving to Blanding when she pointed out my birthplace near Eagle Rock among the juniper trees at a place called 'Adahiilíní (Where the Water Runs Down). Mother pointed to some old logs sticking out of the ground, remnants of the shade house where I was born. My umbilical cord is buried within that area and so my thoughts return to home.

My Navajo name as a child was Awéé' zhóní (Beautiful Baby), and later, when I was about thirteen years old, my older brother Henry gave me the name Samuel. While I have either seven or eight brothers and sisters, I only lived with my mother, sister (Emma Nash) who is about four years older than me, and my little brother, Joe Holiday. I did not really remember my biological father, a medicine man whose name was Billy Holiday, until I met him later in life.

My story is true and starts when I began noticing and remembering things about my daily life and surroundings. I recall my mother praying early in the morning to the dawn where the new, good things of life come from. We prayed to the Holy Ones, who provide all the elements of life like the heat from the sun, the sacred water, and air. The Holy People gave all of this to those who live on the earth. Water is the most sacred and strongest element. The earth was made holy by covering it with water from the ocean. If it had not received this baptism, it would have dried up and died. The earth had been on fire when the Holy People took water from a sacred place and put it on the land so that plants could start growing. The plants grew from their seeds and then animals and insects were made with water and finally people. Water is everything. In the past the Navajos practiced a ceremony called Tó'ee (Of the Water) because water is sacred. Now there are few who know it. God worked with all this and he put a soul or spirit that is holy into it all. When we pray we pray for the spirit and that is why we pray for all things, even the sheep and land. Mother used to say that everything has a soul and is alive because of water.

She would awaken the children before sunrise and give us white cornmeal to offer during our prayers. Then we faced east before the sun came up, pleading for good things to happen, to obtain material blessings, and enjoy safe and productive lives. Other things we prayed for were that the plants would grow, the sheep would be well cared for and increase, that the rain would bring water to drink, and the grazing land would turn green for all our animals. That is how we prayed. I did not like being awakened that early, especially when it was cold, but Mother always said, "You will be healthy and strong if you get up very early in the morning." At first, I just copied her, but later I realized that my prayers for rain and blessings would come true if I was sincere.

Next my older sister did her running. Mother suggested that I also do it and so later I followed my sister but did not travel as far as she did, turning around about half way. When I was older, mother awakened us early in the morning, pulled off my sleeping blanket, and threatened to splash cold water on me if I refused to get up to run. My sister and I were forced to exercise, which I did not like at all, especially in cold weather. In the winter when the first snow fell, mother made us take off our clothes and roll in it. In those days the first snow fall was usually very deep, and as freezing as it was, I had to roll around, tumble, and take a bath in it. It was very, very cold so that by the time this ended, I was shivering. My mother would put a blanket around me and tell me to go inside, but not by the fire, so that I would warm up slowly before I got close to the open flame. She warned us never to run to warmth when freezing because by bathing in the first snow I would become tough and strong to withstand harsh weather. It was a strict practice in Navajo culture to raise children that way, especially in the past, when the People had a lot of enemies who attacked any time of day or night. We were trained to always be prepared for this. Parents also made children run to a lake or pond, break the ice, bathe in the water, then bring a chunk of ice home. This made them alert and able to run for their lives if necessary. Even then, mother told us that we had it easy and children never talked back to their parents—they obeyed, so I did everything she told me to do. Today it is reversed, with children ruling the house and telling their parents what to do.

My earliest memories were of our large flock of sheep, goats, and horses. I do not remember my father at this time because he had married another woman and left us. My mother's older brother, 'Adika'í (Gambler), took most of my mother's livestock, telling her that she did not have a man to take care of them and that he would. If she ever needed some he would let her have whatever she wanted. But that did not happen. Every time mother asked for a sheep he denied her request and soon the livestock no longer belonged to her. I was about four years old by the time my mother had regained her own flock of about 200 sheep but remember my older sister and I herding for the family. While we did that, mother tended to our needs at home and rode a horse or donkey to buy groceries at the Oljato (Moon Water) Trading Post. This store seemed so far away but was the only one in Monument Valley at that time.

My older sister and I herded our livestock every day, sometimes on horseback but most often on foot. There was always work to be done with the herd. One of the biggest jobs came when the ewes were birthing. In the winter we had to take the newborn back to the hogan to get them out of the cold until they were stronger. My sister used to make me carry them back, but they were heavy and sometimes I'd get butted by the mother ewes that followed their young. In the summer we tied our lunch and water to the saddle but did not eat until the herd settled down, usually in the shade of a tree or rock, later in the afternoon. Sometimes we climbed on top of the rocks to pick berries, gathering as many as we could carry for future use.

In the winter we wore blankets when we tended the herd, but when it was hot we wore them like a belt around our waist. It seems like it was not as cold then as it is today. Maybe I was used to it or it was my songs that kept me warm. Mother taught us songs to sing when we got sick and were not feeling well. She also knew songs for when one got lost in cold weather, saying, "When you sing this song you won't freeze to death." I remembered part of it for a long time. Then one day, after my wife and I had children, my daughter Lisa brought me an electric blanket. My prayers and songs had come true. But before that I sang lots of times in the winter when I got cold; these prayers worked because I actually felt warmer when I sang them.

She had learned about these prayers and ceremonies from her father named Tsi'naajinii, (clan name given to individual) who lived at Tsiilchin Bii'tóhí (Water with Reed). I was too young to understand, even if she had taught them to me. I mostly learned them by myself, selecting what made me happy then practicing while I herded sheep. Mother also instructed us about Navajo medicine men with their ceremonies and prayers that provided safety and well-being. She shared songs for protection so that we could have good, strong, and happy lives. Phrases like "blessings of peace" and "beauty before us and behind us" were part of those prayers. These teachings came from true medicine men as taught by the Holy People. She could also feel a person's ailment by waving her hand over them. She knew how to heal with Navajo herbal medicine as well as through hand movements in accompaniment with crystal gazing. What she did is called "'ak'indilnih" (waving a hand over it [the body]), through which she helped many people. This traditional practice uses key points on the body that give a sense of why a person is in pain and then removes it. For instance if someone had a headache, she would pass her hand over their head and remove the pain, which is different from how hand trembling and crystal gazing are used. People came from miles around traveling by horse or donkey for her assistance.

As children we had other daily chores like hauling water for washing, cooking, and drinking. We obtained it by either digging a hole in the ground then scooping it out from the pool that formed or from a rock basin under waterfalls after it rained, but it always seemed available. I didn't like this job, however, because our usual source was half a mile away and the gallon cans we carried had wire handles that cut into and stung our hands as we hauled the water home. We also had to drive our cows, horses, and sheep to water as well as irrigate our big cornfield where we also planted squash and melons. It used to rain all the time, but when it did not, there was a water fall in the canyon where we could obtain it.

I did not know that there was such a thing as being poor or rich. We always had food, clothes, and a place to stay. Our daily diet was goat's milk, mutton, and cornmeal, which we prepared in different ways. In the summer we had fruit grown by relatives who planted trees in the mountains where there was plenty of water. Peaches, apricots, and apples were a nice change from a steady diet of what we grew supplemented by coffee, flour, sugar and canned goods. My favorite food from the trading post was canned tomatoes. From flour mother made fry bread cooked in mutton tallow. This was very simple fare and there was not very much of it. My mother made all our clothes with cloth she bought at the Oljato trading post. Still, we felt well cared for.

Early one morning my sister excitedly told me that we were going to herd the sheep to Sentinel Butte in order to pick sour berries and herbs for food. My mother went with us to teach us which plants are eaten and which can be sucked on when thirsty. She occasionally would do this, emphasizing that we should not kill animals without a purpose and that destroying plants was wrong because these things belonged to Mother Nature and were holy. Inappropriate killing or disrespect would later cause sickness that only a medicine man could heal.

Each time we herded sheep together, mother taught these kinds of things that applied to my life later on. Birds, wildlife, trees, and plants should be cared for while certain types of herbs are used for medicine, but back then I did not really know about them. She taught me how to find herbs and the proper way to harvest them to help when I had an ailment. People in those days depended on them completely and not on treatment at the hospital. Mother knew which herbs healed headaches, fevers, aches, pains, and other types of sickness. She walked to nearby places where different plants grew, especially by Eagle Mesa. In those days there was a lot of rain, making the land very green with medicine plants which were not hard to find. One of her favorite collecting spots was a place of many juniper trees called Tsin Dilhilí (Black Forest). Today there is no rain so medicine plants are scarce. They all slowly went away through the years. As mother collected, she would say, "This is how it is used. Here is a plant to help you when you are thirsty, ch'il yilt'o'í or ch'ilt'ó'í (sucking plant). You suck on it and swallow its juice to quench your thirst. Another one is k'aabiizhii (arrow reed)." She taught that some were used for food, such as a plant that makes flour for bread when white flour could not be obtained from the trading post. We also ground a lot of cornmeal, butchered sheep for meat, and got milk from the goats. That is what we ate.

Often my sister and I were left alone to take care of our home and herd while mother went to visit her sisters and brothers living near Lukachukai (White with Reeds) and in Crystal, New Mexico. Her family had originally moved there from the Gallup area. She went every year and would be gone for quite a while, sometimes as long as two months. My oldest sister, her husband, and their first baby lived about half a mile away so they occasionally checked to see how we were doing because mother and little brother, Joe, were gone much of the time. Later mother lived with a man named Ted Yellow and so did not travel as much. By then I knew we had older brothers and sisters but had not seen them. My aunt had mentioned them once in a while, saying that they were living with my grandmother's sister, Asdzáán Bikinii (Woman Who Owns the House). I did not actually meet them until I was about eight or nine years old.

One day mother went to visit a maternal uncle, a medicine man, who lived two miles away, so I asked if I could go with her. After some persuasion, she finally agreed. When we arrived at his hogan, he rode in on a horse with a bundle tied to his saddle. As he dismounted, his children—a little girl and boy—ran out to meet him. He picked them up, hugged them, and brought out from the bundle a small paper bag filled with striped candy canes purchased at the trading post. His children were so happy to see him and called him "Dad, Dad." This pleased him and he immediately gave each a piece of hard candy and then some to me. That was the first time I ever tasted it. As the children were calling him "My Daddy," it made me wonder what it would be like to have a father. He really loved them; then I realized what I had been missing. I will never forget that because my sister and I did not have a father who cared or would hug us like that. I longed for a relationship with a dad I had never known. I thought, "This is what it's like to have a father," and that night cried myself to sleep wishing for one. I admired how my mom's uncle took pride in his children and how he loved them, so later I asked my mother where my father was and she replied that he lived far away and was married to another woman. He had left my mother when I was a baby to marry a person from Oljato, and so it was a long time later before I finally met him. As for my uncle, after that I did not see him again until after the war, although he didn't live very far away. His home was by the road that has since been replaced by the main highway so now there are only traces of where he lived.


Excerpted from Under the Eagle by Samuel Holiday, Robert S. McPherson. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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